Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Movie - Fireproof (must see)

Released in the Fall of 2008, with a budget of only about half a million dollars, as of Jan 19th 2009,this film has grossed more than USD33 million dollars. It is a movie about fireproofing one's marriage. The fundamental message is simple: Before anyone can save any marriage, something else must happen. Produced by Sherwood Baptist Church movie ministry called Sherwood Pictures, it comprises cast largely from members of the church and is good clean family entertainment. The actors and actresses are volunteers who believed in the message behind the movie, and this help keep the production costs low.

Even my seminary made a rare exception to recommend this movie to the entire community. My church showed the film last weekend and it was a real tear-jerker. Gather your friends. Include your children as well. Invite your church members and watch the film together. It is a heart-warming story that really drives home the message of faith, hope and love. Even the final kissing scene, the producers dimmed the lights and let the actual husband and wife smother each other. Talk about good and clean, this is it! Remember to have loads of tissues to pass around.......

You can watch the trailer below or click here.

Ash Wednesday (25 Feb 2009)

[Photo Credit: Worshiphelps]

My Church has recently concluded a 7-sermon series on the Lord's Prayer. Last week was the grand summary of "Thine is the Kingdom." It has been a wonderful time wading through the rich content and heavenly intent of the famous teaching of Jesus. How appropriate it is that the ending of the series dovetails neatly into the first week of Lent. For my meditation, I was drawn to three things Jesus gave up and three thoughts on how Jesus managed to overcome such overwhelming odds.

Three Things Jesus Gave Up
This coming Wednesday (25 Feb 2009) is Ash Wednesday, which marks the first day of the season of Lent, lasting 40 days. It is also a time when we remember how Christ began his ministry. Jesus gave up 3 things; his rights; his power; his self-reliance. Firstly, his willingness to give up his rights. Despite his bountiful dominion of plenty, his eternal divinity, he chooses to empty himself of the kingly privilege of the heavenly realm. He voluntarily limits himself of his divine powers. Humbly, he walks right into a world of hostility. There was no fanfare for the king of the Universe. There was no room for the mighty Prince of Peace except a humble manger. There was no recognition of the One Who created the world. Even Joseph and Mary had to endure potential shame and humiliation at his birth. This willing abdication of rights is something rarely seen in human circles. He gave up rights and privileges. Secondly, his willingness to undergo testing. even in his weakest moments. It is one thing to be tempted when full. It is yet another to be tempted when he is famished. It looks like Jesus is out to prove one thing: He is fully human, and he suffers from the same kinds of temptations that ordinary humans face.Strained physically, drained emotionally, challenged spiritually, Jesus pressed on. Remembering the Scriptures in his heart, he fought against the temptations of riches and the deception of the evil one. He knows the Scriptures so well that the devil could not penetrate the Son of God's armour. He gave up power to order spiritual forces, choosing to fight with the sole weapon of God's Word. Thirdly, his willingness to give up self-reliance. to depend only on Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is showing us that it is possible. It is also interesting to observe how the Spirit interacts with Jesus. He gave up relying on self, but depending and trusting on the Holy Spirit.

What enables Jesus to be victorious? What are his strategies to overcome the temptations? With this, we have to read Luke 4 more closely.

1) Jesus was 'full of the Holy Spirit.' He entered the desert fully prepared and completely in the companionship of the Holy Spirit. We remember Jesus's act of obedience to be baptized by John the Baptist, and subsequently receives God's blessings. This filling of the Holy Spirit marks the presence of a Person rather than the power of an energy force. Being filled with the Holy Spirit implies him able to do what the Spirit leads him to do.

2) Jesus defeated the Devil by NOT yielding to temptations. The leading of the Spirit to the desert implies that God has allowed Jesus to be tempted by the devil. This may look strange, but it seems to me that Jesus, the second Adam, has to be tempted just like Adam was tempted in the Garden of Eden. Why must the Spirit lead Jesus to be tempted? I must say that this appear strange. However, there is one reason I can think of. If Jesus has been similarly tempted like all of us, no one can then turn around and accuse Jesus of not able to understand our human weaknesses. After all, Jesus has not only gone through what humans face in life, He has to endure worse conditions amid extreme vulnerability. (Remember he was hungry).

3) Jesus is truly a worthy second Adam. A remarkable parallel can be seen between Adam and Jesus.

Adam was sent to the Garden of Eden of plenty. [Jesus was sent to the deserted wilderness.]
Adam was given a helper through Eve. [Jesus had the Holy Spirit]
Adam was given permission to eat anything except from one tree. [Jesus CHOSE to eat nothing.]
Adam was tempted once and he failed. [Jesus was tempted thrice and he resisted them all.]
Both Adam and Jesus were free to choose. [Adam did so foolishly, but Jesus obeyed wisely.]
The first Adam failed miserably. [The second Adam in Jesus, triumphed over all.]

As we remember Ash Wednesday, who do we follow? Do we copy the antics of Adam, of giving in to temptation? Or do we follow the faithfulness of Jesus, who denied the seductive pleasures of the world, and chose the path of righteousness and dedication to God? I know of people who tries to abstain from something during this 40-days of of Lent. It could be fasting regularly, from addictions like coffee, or simply a greater amount of time via prayer. Like riding the bicycle, the best way to learn to pray is pray. Similarly, one of the most profound ways to follow Christ is to learn how to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

Have a meaningful Lent 2009.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Book: "Case For Christianity" (CS Lewis)

Before Lee Strobel's very successful "Case for Christ" and "Case for Faith" in the 80-90s, we have CS Lewis, who argues competently for the "Case for Christianity" back in 1943. This is a drastically abridged version to Lewis's more successful "Mere Christianity." This 56-page booklet comprises a series of short radio addresses given to the British public in the midst of WWII. It is delivered in 2 parts. The first part talks about "Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe." The second revolves around "What Christians Believe."

1) What is the book about?
It is a book targeted at making a case for a believable Christianity, using a mixture of philosophy, reasoning and theologizing for the lay people. It tries to convince listeners that Christianity is a reasonable faith.

2) What are the key points of the book?
Lewis touches upon the nature of human behaviour. He condenses the nature of mankind into 2 points.
  1. Human beings have a universal belief in terms of what they OUGHT to behave.
  2. Yet, though they know they should, they don't.

3) What is Lewis's understanding of Moral Law?
  1. "Moral law is, so to speak, the tune we've got to play: our instincts are merely the keys." (CS Lewis, Case For Christianity, NY:Touchstone, 1996, p8)
  2. If two instincts conflict, even though the stronger one will win, humans tend to side with the weaker party. For example, when someone on safe grounds (strong) sees a drowning man (weak), his instinct is to help.
  3. Even then, man's instincts does not mean he will behave accordingly.

4) Lewis's Understanding of Natural Law? Three views:
First, there is a MATERIALIST view where nature just happens to exist. Some of us may see this as the Big-Bang view. Second, there is the religious view where there is a Higher Divinity behind all of nature. Third, there is the IN-BETWEEN view where small evolution happens after the initial act of creation.

5) Part II - What Christians Believe
Lewis skillfully highlights several deficient worldviews before offering up Christianity as the most realistic.
  1. ATHEISTIC: Here, the world is divided into those who believe there is a God and those who don't. Here Lewis, didn't quite elaborate on the agnostic view. He argues that the atheistic view is inadequate because it does not explain good and evil.
  2. PANTHEISM: The thinking here lies in terms of a God animating all things, and all things is God. This philosophy stems from Hegel who teaches that God is beyond all good and evil, but is everything is God. Again, this view is inadequate because it does not explain evil and suffering.
  3. "Christianity + Water" View: This is the simplistic view that there is a good God, and 'everything eventually will be alright.' This fails to take seriously a faith that is reasonable.
  4. DUALISM: This view advocates 2 equal and opposite independent powers. There is a good and there is evil force. Both counter each other. The problem is that whether something is good or bad, is measured against a certain standard. Who sets the standard? Is it the force of good or evil?

6) Lewis's Case for Christianity
Lewis makes a case that people does not need convincing theories before they can believe in Christianity. Theories explain how something work, not the thing itself. In the same way, we can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works. Sometimes, we would not know how something works until we accept it. Using the example of food and nourishment, one does not need to know HOW the body is nourished by the food before eating it. One can simply eat it without knowing all the theories about how the food is digested, absorbed and converted into the necessary nutrients. By making a distinction between theory and actual believing, Lewis tries to show us that while one can reason about Christianity, faith is not entered into via theory. It is believing in a person who lived and existed.

"Theories about Christ's death aren't Christianity: they're explanations about how it works." (46)

Let me end with my favourite passage from the book.
Of course, I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it doesn't begin in comfort; it begins in the dismay I've been describing, and it's just no good trying to fo on to that comfort without first going through that dismay. In religion, as in the war and in everything else, comfort is the one thing you can't get by looking for it. If you're looking for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you're looking for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth - only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair. Most of us have got over the pre-war wishful thinking about international politics. It is time we did the same for religion. (27-8)
7) Why I like this book?
Simple. It is short and sweet.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Book - "The Shack"

This book launched a publishing company called windblownmedia. Christian publishers see it as a Christian book with controversial theologies. Non-Christian parties sees it as too 'Christian' for their comfort. It has been criticized by some conservatives like Al Mohler and Tim Challies for its theology, which seems to contradict the traditional ideas of God. (For example, God the Father is actually a black woman, Jesus as a Jewish man and the Holy Spirit portrayed by an Asian woman.) Yet, there has been huge interest from many groups. Challies even called the theology of the author as unbiblical. Christianity Today published a rather mild critique of the book, though it eventually took the side of saying that both the supporters and non-supporters of the book failed to 'keep faith.' Regent-College Professor John Stackhouse also had his fair share of criticism in that the book seems to discredit the institutional church.

What I Like....
1) Memorable Quotes
  • "Life takes a bit of time and a lot of relationship." (92)
  • "Your question presumes that poison is bad; that such creations have no purpose. Many of these so-called bad plants, like this one, contain incredible properties for healing or are necessary for some of the most magnificent wonders when combined with something else. Humans have a great capacity for declaring something good or evil, without truly knowing." (133) (on poisonous plants seen as all bad)
  • "Faith does not grow in the house of certainty." (189) (on faith)
  • "Just because I know you're too curious to go, does that reduce your freedom to leave?" (95) (on freedom of the believer)
  • "Paradigms power perception and perceptions power emotions." (197) (on how people understand things)
  • "So check your perceptions, and beyond that check the truthfulness of your paradigms - what you believe. Just because you believe something firmly doesn't make it true. Be willing to reexamine what you believe. The more you live in the truth, the more your emotions will help you see clearly. But even then, you don't want to trust them more than me." (197) (on the difference between trusting God and trusting one's perceptions)
  • ".. just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable evil doesn't mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don't ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn't depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering, you will find grace in many facets and colors." (185) (on pain and suffering)
  • ".. religion is about having the right answers, and some of their answers are right. But I am about the process that takes you to the living answer and once you get to him, he will change you from the inside. There are a lot of smart people who are able to say a lot of right things from their brain because they have been told what the right answers are , but they don't know me at all." (198) (on the difference between religion and relationship)
  • "If anything matters then everything matters. Because you are important, everything you do is important. Every time you forgive, the universe changes; every time you reach out and touch a heart or a life, the world changes; with every kindness and service, seen or unseen, my purposes are accomplished and nothing will ever be the same again." (235)

On the Other Hand....
There are stuff in the book written in a controversial manner. The theologies of having 'Papa' God as a female and at the same time a woman, is a radical attempt to counter against sexist or overly-patriarchal image of God the Father. I am not sure if this works well, as we can easily claim that Young is dogmatic about God being a female! Having the Holy Spirit represented as an Asian woman also brings in images of racial distinction. One can easily question: "Why not a Latino? or Arab?" The very choice made by Young already limits one's perception about the Holy Spirit.

The book is a work of fiction, or some will like to call it a theological fiction. That said, Young's book can come under the same genre of the Da Vinci code, in the sense that the book is a fiction based on what the authors claim to be facts. For biblical scholars, this could approach the genre of myths, whereby a story is used to narrate the truth.

The book focuses a lot of restoring the view of God from a relationship angle, of forgiveness and of grace. There is nothing inherently wrong about it. However, if this emphasis comes at the expense of overly critical of human institutions, or rules and regulations, a line needs to be drawn. For example, quoting the character of Jesus in the book:
"Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you." (122-3)
This is seen as an affront on the authority that is based on 'human institutions,' and paints it as an altogether bad thing, and as opposing relationship. The truth is, relationships are necessary whether institutions exist or not. Does Young mean to say that if we eliminate all hierarchies, we resolve all relationship issues in the world? Unlikely. I think if one pushes it far enough, the very 'relationship-centered' platform advocated by Young will soon become the very institution that Young seeks to replace in the first place!

My Comments
I finished this book in one sitting, personally grateful for the clear theological themes carried across via a fictional story that attempts to bridge the head and the heart. Certainly, there is some initial discomfort when the person of God is introduced in a non-traditional way. Yet, I am impressed with the way Young weaves together the loving and harmony displayed by the three members of the Triune Godhead. The downside is the overwhelming negative tones toward institutions and religious traditions that we have come to know, even love. I have to agree with Dr Stackhouse's opinion in this regard. We need to have an even keel regarding our attitudes toward religious institutions as well as relationships. We cannot simply cut out one part and hope for the other to expand and fill the void. A second danger I feel is from the reader's perspective. A literary 'Dr-Jekyll-and-Mr-Hyde' picture emerges. On the one hand, it is easy for those of us who are theologically trained to see that this book is a work of fiction that contains theological themes. On the other, the unsuspecting lay person may become confused and disillusioned about the church and all things institutional. What the world needs is not more sarcasm and attacks against the institution. What we all need is redemption. Even the relationships that Young proposes need to be redeemed.

I recommend the reading of this book highly, and pray that it will challenge readers to read the Bible more. All in all, the book does the public by explaining theology in a very refreshing way. William P Young has done for basic theology, just like Eugene Peterson's THE MESSAGE has done for English Bible translations.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Depression = Anger Turned Inside Out?

Christianity Today just published an interesting article on Anger. It talks about a pervasive 'undercurrent of anger' in the modern workplace. Ranging from bad management to perceived unfair expectations, from the local business to the larger economy, the situation appears to be getting worse. Associated Content published a list of 'Top Ten Causes of Anger at Work.' They are:
  1. Bad Management
  2. Unjust Treatment
  3. Lack of Career Opportunity
  4. Not Being Appreciated
  5. Excess Workload
  6. Computer Irritations
  7. Dishonest Colleagues
  8. Incompetence of Subordinates
  9. Interpersonal Incivility
  10. Asserting Power
Interestingly, all of these ten causes deal with the emotional reactions seen from an ego-centric angle. One can argue that these 'causes' tend to be largely subjective. For example, what do you mean by 'unjust treatment?' For the boss or for the subordinate? What if both are victims of something very much outside their control? Or take 'dishonest colleagues.' Could it be lack of communications in the first place? Another interesting observation is 'computer irritations.' What happened to the computer? It has not changed much. The hardware is still the same as of 3 years ago. Maybe the software needed some refreshing. However, I suspect that the biggest change is not the computer but the user themselves. The user expectations have shifted faster than the computer. So, perhaps it is more accurate to say 'computer-USER irritations' rather than 'computer irritations. All said, I believe that for every external reaction, there is something very intrinsic going on.

It is Something More internal
The author, Mark Galli compares the anger reactions in China and in America and was intrigued to ask why the former tends to be more violent. Galli then warns us about 'unhealthy anger' which exists among Christian people. Surprisingly, it is anger that is considered 'grounded in righteous anger.' Essentially, there is nothing wrong in being angry. However, when initial anger is allowed to linger, turning from anger-->bitterness-->overblown rage, it can harm loved ones around us. There is however something else that is even more sinister. Anger that is turned inside out can lead to serious bouts of depression. Kerry Gene calls it a marriage, with anger and depression going 'hand-in-hand.' However, to equate repressed anger as inward anger leading to depression may again be too simplistic. There is something even more intrinsic. Sin. It is how we respond to the effects of sin that brings about all the negative implications of depression, rage and all kinds of emotional and physical violence.
"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23)
When we come up short, we fail to be who we were meant to be. The entire human race is not exempt. Every person is tainted. Every soul is contaminated by the sinful desires of the soul and tempted by the evil powers and principalities of the world. However, there is hope. The first step is to acknowledge it, that we are sinful. The second step is to seek help. If we fail to acknowledge sin in our lives, or realize our brokenness, there is no need or incentive to accept the extended hand of the Helper. If we delude ourselves into saying sin is nothing much to worry about and repeatedly refuses help, we are digging our own emotional graves. Each denial and every statement of arrogance or complacency only becomes giant heaps of yucky soil piled on top of our hearts as it is gradually lowered into the crypt. Being emotionally buried alive is one thing. By spiritually volunteering our souls to constant self-deception that we can take care of our own sin, our own way and in our own time can be described in one word: Tragic.

In summary, when we repress our anger, and start to hurt ourselves, it could lead to serious depression conditions. It could increase anxiety and store up wrath. It could even lead to violent behaviour that hurts. Yet, inward anger and depression is not simply due to bad emotions. There is something more internal called sin. For people who choose the acknowledge sin, seek help and turn away from their wicked willful ways, there is hope. Immediately after v23,
"and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." (Rom 3:24)
This is a free gift. What is there to lose? Take it, my friends.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Do not be SLEWed by Temptations

“Keep us safe from ourselves and the devil.” (Matthew 6:13, MSG)
This is a refreshing translation of the last verse of the Lord’s Prayer. The KJV translates it as “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The word ‘temptation’ has a double implication, one of enticement and the other of testing. The Greek word ‘peirasmos’ represents more of a trial rather than an enticement, though it can be argued that an enticement can be a form of trial. It is the same word used by James when he talks about counting it all joy when one encounter trials (James 1:2). While Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase may not capture the literal meaning of 'peirasmos,' it reminds us that the chief way for the evil one to disturb our spiritual focus on God is via tempting the self. The preacher at my church last week talks about three ways temptations are used against us, namely, i) the temptation to be suspicious of God; ii) temptation to think negatively of life; and iii) the temptation to be self-controlling of our destiny.

As I reflect upon the nature of temptations, I can think of a fourth danger, which is the temptation to become weary that we become tired of fighting the spiritual warfare. If we recognize we are in the midst of spiritual warfare, we will be constantly wearing our armor of God. The reason why we are not actively wearing the armor of God more, is because we have become too relaxed, too comfortable with our material plenty, that we think that there is no war. If that is true, the army for God will be deprived of one more warrior for Christ.

Summarizing, there are four ways in which we can be tempted toward sinning against God. I coin the acronym as S.L.E.W as a way to remember. We can be tempted to do the following:

S – Sowing seeds of suspicion about God;
L – Leading us to live negative lives;
E – Enthroning ourselves rather than God;
W – Weary or tired of fighting the spiritual warfare.

When we have become SLEWed by temptations, we are of no threat to the evil one. Suspicious living is the beginning of a spiritual downfall, just like Adam and Eve became suspicious of God's command not to eat the forbidden fruit. Living negative lives accelerates this demise, where we allow our heads to be clouded with negative thoughts until we fail to see the hope of God. Enthroning ourselves give us a false sense of security. Weary of fighting makes us choose the 'safer, non-confrontative' stance in a world that is urgently in need of Christian warriors for Christ. When we have fallen victim to SLEW, we die spiritually without even knowing it.

The Last Verse Sums Up the Prayer
Another significant point is that the Lord’s prayer ends with this verse. The part about “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever” is not in Matthew. Luke’s rendition is the same (Luke 11:4b). I will venture to suggest that this last warning about temptation is important. All it takes is one yield to temptation and all our good works from the earlier part of the Lord ’s Prayer can be rendered meaningless. No wonder Jesus tries to cover all the bases in order for us to pray effectively.

This last part of the Lord's prayer is a summary statement of our need to let God protect us from all temptations that lead us away from all the honor we desire to give God. This last statement is important because all the good deeds and works we have done, can easily be unraveled through one clumsy yielding to temptations. Thankfully, the verse "Lead us not into temptation" is not the last verse. "Deliver us from evil," reminds us once again that what begins with God, ends with God who is able to help us overcome. Surely, in God, we shall overcome.


Jolt Quote XXII

"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. "

(CS Lewis, "Is Theology Poetry?" in The Weight of Glory, San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 2001, p140)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Prayers for the Unemployed and others....

The Church of England has published a set of prayers specifically to help the retrenched, and those living in uncertain times especially during this economic downturn. It will be helpful for us to be able to pray clearly. Three prayers have been extracted. The first is a prayer for the retrenched worker. The second is a prayer for those still holding on to a job, and the third is a general prayer for the whole economic situation. Hope that you will find these useful for your own prayers and meditations.

(A) Prayer on being made redundant
‘Redundant’ – the word says it all -



without purpose,

surplus to requirements.’

Thank you, Heavenly Father, that in the middle of

the sadness,

the anger,

the uncertainty,

the pain,

I can talk to you.

Hear me as I cry out in confusion,

help me to think clearly,

and calm my soul.

As life carries on,

may I know your presence with me

each and every day.

And as I look to the future,

help me to look for fresh opportunities, for new directions.

Guide me by your Spirit,

and show me your path,

through Jesus, the way, the truth and the life. Amen.

(B) Prayer for those remaining in the workplace
Life has changed:

colleagues have gone – redundant, out of work.

Suddenly, what seemed so secure is now so very fragile.

It’s hard to know what I feel:

sadness, certainly,

guilt, almost, at still having a job to go to,

and fear of the future:

who will be next?

how will I cope with the increased pressure of work?

Lord Jesus, in the midst of this uncertainty, help me to keep going:

to work to the best of my ability,

taking each day at a time,

and taking time each day to walk with you

for you are the way, the truth and the life. Amen.

(C) Prayer for the current financial situation
Lord God, we live in disturbing days:

across the world,

prices rise,

debts increase,

banks collapse,

jobs are taken away,

and fragile security is under threat.

Loving God, meet us in our fear and hear our prayer:

be a tower of strength amidst the shifting sands,

and a light in the darkness;

help us receive your gift of peace,

and fix our hearts where true joys are to be found,

in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Credit: Church of England, Jan 2009)

Other Links:
  • Church of England (site)
  • Daily Telegraph (site)
  • Book-"Reason for God" (Tim Keller)

    Tim Keller is pastor of the fast growing Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. One reason for his rising fame and popularity is his ability to speak to the concerns of a culture that is not only becoming more secular but skeptical of tradition and religion. CS Lewis gave a radio talk in the 1940s entitled: "Case for Christianity." Lee Strobel had his "Case for Faith" sometime in the 1980s. Tim Keller's contribution is a 293-paged "Reason for God," published by Dutton, member of the Penguin group, 2008. The book's website is here.

    Briefly, the first part of the book deals with 7 major doubts skeptics have regarding the truth of Christianity. Calling the seven statements as the Leap of Doubt, he turns the skeptical view on its head by forcing them to apply their own statements using their own measurements.
    1. There can't be just one true religion
    2. How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?
    3. Christianity is a Straitjacket
    4. The Church is Responsible for so much Injustice
    5. How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?
    6. Science Has Disproved Christianity
    7. You Can't Take the Bible Literally
    The Two Camps & Three Barriers
    Keller describes his early Christian experience in terms of struggling with two seemingly opposing viewpoints and three barriers to faith. On the one camp, people who fight for social justice are themselves 'moral relativists' (xii). The other camp comprises people who were morally upright and yet socially nonchalant. Compounding this problem are three barriers: Intellectual, Personal and Social barriers. A religion that is believable for him must overcome all these barriers, to be intellectually reasonable, personally accountable and socially responsible. He argues that faith needs to be lived with some level of doubt as well, just like a human body needing antibodies. Otherwise, the faith is not solid but plastic. They do not last. In his recommendation, he suggests that both believers and non-believers at the worst scenario, ought to take the stance of 'disagreement' rather than 'denouncement' (xviii). The main point of Keller's book is to challenge the skeptic to dare to measure their own criticisms with their own standards, and at the same time, to extend their understanding of future hope, learning 'reasonably' toward the viewpoints of Christianity. It is an invitation for the skeptic to taste and see that the Lord is good.

    The author then goes on to address the seven skeptical statements before promoting the seven positive statements of the gospel of Christ which are:
    1. The Clues of God
    2. The Knowledge of God
    3. The Problem of Sin
    4. Religion and the Gospel
    5. The (True) Story of the Cross
    6. The Reality of the Resurrection
    7. The Dance of God
    The Seven Leaps of Doubt
    1) "There Can't Just Be One True Religion" is a major statement of faith. It already assumes that there is no one true way. Skeptics generally force themselves to take either or a mixture of 3 alternatives toward religion; 'outlaw' it, condemm or to privatize it. All three have shown themselves to be equally inadequate.

    2) "How Can a Good God Allow Suffering?" was first suggested by David Hume, a British philosopher. Keller asserts that evil and suffering does not satisfactorily prove against the existence of God. It might even be arguments for God! In other words, suffering and pain makes us long for something better. Moreover, evil, suffering and pain is not just for the God-aware, it is for EVERYONE, no exceptions! Whether one is an atheist, a theist or an agnostic, all face suffering in one way of another. If theism is non-reasonable, atheism is far worse in terms of understanding the problem of evil and suffering. God himself did not spare his own son to undergo suffering. In Christ, there is ultimate redemption from suffering. Can we say the same for atheism?

    3) "Christianity is a Straitjacket" reflects very much the modern times of relativity and the desire for people to determine their own truths, according to their own standards and within their own fancies. The culture resists the authoritative manner which religion tries to shove down their doctrines down people's unwilling throats. Keller points out that one's belief against absolute truth is in itself an absolute statement. In other words, one can argue that anyone criticizing Christianity for straitjacketing people can also be equally criticized for 'straitjacketing' others into their relative way of believing. The author then argues that communities cannot be completely inclusive. How can falsehood and truth exists side by side? Christianity is not culturally rigid. After all, Christianity was first encountered by Jews, moved to Greek Hellenists environment in the Mediterranean, received by the Barbarians in Northern Europe, then Western Europe and subsequently finding their way to Latin America, Africa and large parts of Asia. Regarding the issue of straitjacket, the counter argument is that 'freedom' itself does have its limits. A freedom seen in terms of self-indulgence and insensitive to the community one lives in is never true freedom. It is licentiousness leading initially from an amoral point of view toward a self-justifiable immoral way of life.

    4) "The Church is Responsible for So Much Injustice" is a common accusation. Yes, there has been flaws in history of the church, violence through crusades, and fanatical bigots. Even the Christian West was once beset with slavery. However, with each name mentioned that one used to attack the church, remember that there are true martyrs who died for the faith, and did lots of good to advance the human dignity in the world. So when one argues against the injustices, do not forget that fair judgment requires the skeptic to consider the good that has been done.

    5) "How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?" One reason why increasingly people believe this is due to the tendency of people to arrive at their own religious conclusions based on their root secular beliefs. In fact, one can argue that secularism is a religion in itself. CS Lewis brilliantly identified magic and science being twins that came from the same set of parents. There were 'born of the same impulse' (70). While in the past, people believe that there is a Divine Superior outside and we are all seeking the Higher divinity, (Magic), modernity reverses it and sees everything gravitating toward themselves (Science).
    "Instead of trying to shape our desires to fit reality, we now seek to control and shape reality to fit our desires. The ancients looked at an anxious person and prescribed spiritual character change. Modernity talks instead about stress-management techniques." (71)
    CS Lewis said that there are two kinds of people. The first kind says "Thy Will be done" to God. In the second kind, God says to them: "Thy will be done." Other religions do not claim their divinity as a God of love. Only Christ claims that.

    6) "Science Has Disproved Christianity" is a sweeping statement propagated by people such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel C Dennett. Keller argues that not only modern scientists have to grapple with the issue of miracles. Ancients do too. The power of the gospel is that when people see the miracles, it does not remain within the realm of intellectual beliefs. It leads them to worship, to do great things for God and to become people yearning to bring God's goodness to the world. Ian Barbour lays out 4 ways in which to deal with science and religion: "conflict, dialogue, integration and independence" (88). One end is very public while the other is completely private. The conflict part is losing credibility. Many scientists can reasonably believe in Christ.

    7) "You Can't Take the Bible Literally" means that one rather pick and choose Scripture. If that is the case, one can become like the Stepford wives where one lives like a robot, choosing and keeping only those things that one finds reasonable in the Bible. The problem with why people struggle with the Bible is their failure to take into account how deeply they have become entrenched in their own sense of history, that they ignored the contexts of the biblical passage. In other words, trying to force modern history and interpret the Bible from there is a problem right from the start. It is like trying to question a 1st century man walking many miles to work, saying why he did not drive!

    Seven Reasons for Faith
    (1) Clues of God
    Several clues are evident.
    • The very existence of the world
    • Finetuning of the universe
    • Regularity of nature
    • Beauty and meaning in the world
    • Our cognitive faculties work!
    2) The Knowledge of God
    One already knows God is there, for if life is one big intellectual problem, where is the meaning? The reason why people are searching for meaning in life is because all their struggles are in essence a search for God. Why do we tell one another to be truthful? Why do we want to do good? Where are the origins of human rights? Without a knowledge of God, will all these make sense? In fact it could even be more 'dishonest' to deny God.

    3) The Problem of Sin
    Sin is essentially an inadequate attempt to fill our emptiness and void, thinking that we can fill it without God. According to Kierkegaard, everyone must find some way to 'justify their existence.' There are personal, social and cosmic consequences of sin.
    "Sin is not simply doing bad things, it is putting good things in the place of God." (71)
    Everyone needs to live for something. A life without God does not cut it.

    4) Religion and the Gospel
    Beginning with the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Keller argues that either way, one becomes bad and mad. The very desire to do good deeds in order to 'redeem' the evil ways of Mr Hyde ultimately destroys both. Dr Jekyll uses religion as a form of good deeds. Sin and evil have two faces. One face is to do evil to destroy. The other is to pile up good and become self-arrogant and prideful leading to self-destruction. Pharasaism is dangerous as it can create social strife. We need the grace of God, to be accepted. Religion pushes fear to get us to conform. Grace in God invites us through love. Grace can also be a threat. Using the example of Les Miserables, Jean Valjean when he eventually spared his persistent pursuer, police officer Javert, the latter could not comprehend why a 'bad' guy like Valjean can ever do such good to him, by releasing his arch-enemy? The gospel offers us this radical grace. Yet this alone is not the whole story. We need to see the cross.

    5) The (True) Story of the Cross
    The cross represents real forgiveness through the suffering of Christ. Secondly, it represents that real love is a personal exchange.
    The fact that Jesus had to die for me humbled me out of my pride. The fact that Jesus was glad to die for me assured me out of my fear. (200)
    The Bible is for us.

    6) The Reality of the Resurrection
    Many people struggle with this. This is why the four gospels and the New Testament repeatedly echo the evidence.
    • The Empty Tomb and the women as witnesses seem incredulous. After all, women witnesses are not very respected in the society then. Yet, physical eyewitnesses were recorded. Are they all wrong? Despite such incredible evidence, yet the early Christians were prepared to suffer for the sake of standing up for these proofs, even in spite of persecutions and humiliation. If the evidence is false, these people are truly insane. If the evidence is true, they cannot help it but to proclaim and bear witness. In fact, believing that the evidence is false is more absurd than believing that the evidence is true. It is more reasonable that they are correct rather than to attribute them to hallucinations. Christians at that time do not have the luxury of comfortable pews in nice church buildings. They proclaim Christ at a personal cost. Why will any reasonable person put himself or herself through social, religious, political or economic inconveniences? Unless they are proclaiming what they saw. Remember that doubts about the resurrection is not restricted in the modern times we live in. The ancients also struggle with this.

    7) The Dance of God
    God is Trinity. We are invited into the divine dance, not because God needs it, but because God desires to share it with us in love. We need to return to the dance. In a nutshell, the gospel comprises of 4 great acts: CREATION, FALL, REDEMPTION And RESTORATION.

    Great book. I like to end the way the book ended. A story.
    During a dark time in her life, a woman in my congregation complained that she had prayed over and over, 'God, help me to find you,' but had gotten nowhere. A Christian friend suggested to her that she might change her prayer to, 'God, come and find me. After all, you are the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep.' She concluded when she was recounting this to me, 'The only reason I can tell you this story is - he did.'"


    Thursday, February 12, 2009

    A Full Life

    And Job died, an old man and full of days. (Job 42:17)
    The book of Job is an amazing narrative and poetry about the struggles of a righteous man, seeking to honour God in both good times and bad. The author begins with:

    "There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job, and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil." (Job 1:1)

    In one verse, we see a summary of the person's country of residence, his name, his character, integrity, his faith and his way of living. In the final verse of Job, not only did the main character die old, he lived a full life. Interestingly, the author begins and concludes not with all his worldly possessions or qualifications but on his character and faith. When a person dies, if the family chooses to publish the obituary on the national newspapers, it typically has the following:

    Spiritual Verse and Picture of the deceased
    Name: (Year Born - Year Died)
    Name of Spouse and Children left behind
    Profession, Honours, Qualifications Achieved
    and several other short credits.
    Details of funeral
    Several observations can be made about the writings on the tombstone.
    1) Life is Short:
    The short dash shows us how short temporal our lives are. I used to tell my colleagues and friends that "Life is Short. Don't shorten it." I used it in a tongue-in-cheek manner to remind them that we ought not to take life too seriously, by displaying our impatience and tempers via bad behaviours. Neither should we be overly concerned about the future to the point that we worry ourselves in the present. So, if life is short, should we not learn the art of prioritizing, to ensure that the important things get done first? Shouldn't we employ first-things-first thinking?

    2) Achievements Don't Follow the Dead
    The years of experience, the qualifications and the family stay on earth. Those who die have to leave everything behind. There is always a tendency for people to list down all the worldly accomplishments. Remember that no one on their death beds ever wished that they should have spent more time in the office or overtime work. Often, they would say that they lamented not spending more quality time with loved ones.

    3) "Died peacefully" or "Gone Home to the Lord"
    These words are pretty standard in any obituary. Sometimes, it is done by family members who simply want to be "politically correct." My question is: "Does that reflect the true desire of the deceased?" If not, shouldn't those of us who desire to witness for the Lord AFTER DEATH, share our life verses with loved ones before we go? Truth is, we need to know which Scripture or spiritual passage has best described the deceased's life.

    4) Words Chosen Reflect Our Idea of What's Important
    The tombstone does not have room for a long autobiography. All the important facts and information have to be compressed into a small single sided page. Hence, we have to be very economical with our words. Moreover, every additional word may incur an additional charge for those who are conscious about the monetary aspect of the obituary. Those who are fascinated with educational qualifications will list all the degrees and academic honours. Those who admire their professional work will highlight the list of directorships, companies worked in and various charities served. Those who see him as a loving patriarch or matriarch will string together a detailed genealogy of family.

    5) Last Chance
    Finally, the obituary is like one last opportunity for the deceased to get published, if he/she has not published anything. This is not a glamourous way to be famous, but if we see publishing as something intended for a wider audience or readership, it fits the requirement. If that is the case, should we not be aiming for a kind of 'witnessing for God' with our life even unto death?

    With these five observations, I have five suggestions
    Firstly, I think that the way we should prioritize our lives be guided by what we want to see on our own obituaries. If our chosen Scripture text is Ps 23:1, where the Lord is our Shepherd and we shall not be in want, we ought to be living in such a way as to demonstrate fully that our hopes and our desire for guidance is always from our Lord God.

    Secondly, fix our minds on things above, and on things that matter to God. If we want to maintain that this life is temporal, and we long to make meaning out of our short span on earth, our focus need to be on things that matter. What is the point of rushing and fighting tooth-and-nail to retain our power base at the expense of damaging relationships we cherish?

    Third, the hope that we have can never be found in worldly things. Thus, PRACTICE our spending time with God always. We need that routine not only on earth but in heaven. We need that awareness of the transcendent, and Someone we can look forward to be with. This propels our desire to want to be with God, and when our time has come, we can say to all that we have lived our life honouring God, and now is the time to be honoured with God.

    Fourth, we need that laserlike focus on what is important. Out of the 24 hour cycle, what are the things we do that demonstrate our desire to invest in the important rather than the urgent? We need to learn to summarize our lives by praying and journaling our daily matters. Only when we take time to reflect and ponder over what has happened through the day, or yesterday, we can calibrate ourselves according to what God has called us to do and to be.

    Finally, knowing that we all have one last chance to publish something significant for the Lord via our obituaries, live our lives in such a way that people will automatically know who and what we stands for. Just like William Wilberforce is famous for his fight against slavery, Martin Luther King's fight against racial discrimination, we have the person of Job, who lived through both good and the bad times, yet remaining faithful always to the Lord. If all our activities and conversations we have are centered on one common theme, it is easier for people to know where we are coming from. In other words, make all conversations represent who we are.

    The Scriptures describe Job as having lived a full life. That ought to inspire us to do the same. Let not the economic conditions or the depressing climate affect our calling to be faithful to Jesus. We must press on, to be blameless, upright, fearing God and when it is our time to die, to be able to say to anyone, just like Paul:
    I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith;" (2 Tim 4:7)

    Tuesday, February 10, 2009

    Forgiveness (饶恕, rao shu)

    "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matthew 6:14-15)
    Last Sunday in Church, the preacher observes that the forgiveness emphasis in the Lord's Prayer was mentioned in his followup (Matthew 5:14-15). We may be asking: "Isn't the kingdom important? How about heaven? Perhaps the will of God?" Why aren't these relatively 'important' things deserve a second mention? Why did Jesus choose to expound on the part of forgiveness above all other things? One thing to learn is to read around the verses. Theologically, this means trying to locate and understand the context of the gospel passage. Reading Matthew leads us to understand that Jesus is trying to reach a Jewish audience, well familiar with Old Testament laws. Their greatest need: Forgiving one another.

    Context of Matthew
    Matthew writes the gospel primarily to the Jewish believers around AD 70-80. These people are steep in Old Testament law keeping, and forgiveness comes with a strong sense of justice in terms of 'an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.' (Matt 5:38). Let us trace the emphases of Jesus in Matthew. As Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount, there are multiple references to Old Testament Torah, or the Law. All along, Jesus tries to educate his hearers that the fulfillment of the Law will be done through Jesus (Matt 5:17). Freely they have received, so freely they ought to give. However, it will not be in the ways taught by the Pharisees but in the Person of Christ. Look at the range of works that are affected by relationships.
    1) WORSHIP: Jesus sheds light on the need to be reconciled with one's brother before worship (Matt 5:23).
    2) MENTALLY: Adultery is not only the physical act, but a mental trap (Matt 5:27-30). In other words, if one interprets the law like the Pharisees, all of us will be limbless.
    3) VERBALLY: Swearing by the law is no use, for we cannot save ourselves
    4) NON-JUDGMENTALLY: Instead, love our enemies rather than judge them.

    Jesus seems to be making these points to highlight that the way to observe the Law of Moses is in Jesus Christ. That is how the law becomes COMPLETE in Christ. As long as the Jews were insistent on the Pharisaic interpretation of the Law and the practices thereof, the Law will be lopsided. It is only when the Law is seen through the eyes of Jesus, we get a fulfillment of the Law. The law is not cancelled, but completed through grace. Unlike some preachers who speak vehemently against the Law, insisting in their interpretation of 'grace' in such a way that the Law needs to be 'deleted' from the Christian faith, the Scriptures is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. The word is not cancel the law or erase the Pharisee from our hearts. The word is FULFILL. This is not mixture of law and grace. It is the accomplishment of the law in Jesus, not elimination. In other words, we need to hold the law on one hand, and grace in Jesus on the other hand. It is thus not syncretism but fulfilling of the Word of God in Jesus. Whenever any party over-emphasizes either hand, their theology will be lop-sided.

    Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
    As long as we insist on our own sense righteousness, we are under the Pharisaic version of the law. However, if we put on Jesus, we see the Law being one that is redeemed in Christ. The way to be redeemed is to recognize firstly that we have already been redeemed in Christ. In other words, when we realize that we have been truly forgiven and cleansed of our dreadful sins, we will be able to forgive others. Once we have been forgiven, should we not forgive others as well? In Matthew 18, Jesus responds to Peter's query on forgiveness. The answer is not only seventy-seven times (interpreted perpetually) but a sense of always wearing on our head-bands "I FORGIVE YOU."

    The parable of the Unmerciful servant is meant to address our very need to forgive. It talks about 3 persons, the Master, his servant and the servant's servant. For simplicity, let me call them the Master, the Big servant and the small servant. After begging for forgiveness, the Master decided to cancel the big debt (10000 talents) of the Big servant. Instead of showing mercy to the small servant who owes the Big servant (100 denariis), the Big servant insisted on the repayment of the debt, conveniently forgetting the big debt he has benefited from the Master. The contrast is stark.

    - Big servant is relieved of 10000 talents. He insisted Small pay back 100 denariis
    - Numerically, the number is huge. Currency wise, the amount is incredible.
    - Currency wise, the amount is like Big Servant owes 'millions' in contrast to Small servant's 'few dollars.' If Big Servant has been forgiven millions of dollars, should not he be forgiving of other people's dollar and cents? This is the context of forgiveness.

    When we find it hard to forgive other people's few dollars against us, remember that we have already been forgiven millions. Isn't that a case of penny-wise pound foolish? What right do we have to bear a grudge against people who hold a small debt against us, when we, of all people, have been forgiven millions of debt we owe God? The key to forgiveness is indeed to recognize that we have already been forgiven. We have already had our insurmountable debts fully cleared. Shouldn't we show grace and mercy to others who has a smaller debt against us?

    Forgiveness: From the Heart
    The Chinese translation for Matthew 6:14's verse on forgiveness is 饶恕 (rao shu). 饶 (rao) means to be rich. The word 恕 (shu) has a 'heart' 心 (xin) which can be interpreted as from the bottom of the heart. The word above 如 (ru) means 'in compliance with. So when one's actions is in compliance with what is needed in the heart, the act of forgiveness is liberating. 饶恕 (rao shu) literally means richly forgive, or forgiving others with a big and generous heart. Those who have been pardoned will be called to pardon others. Hence from a THEOLOGICAL standpoint, we have already been forgiven, hence we should freely forgive. PSYCHOLOGICALLY, our forgiving of others has a healing effect on our emotions and mental state of mind. Forgiveness must be from the heart.

    Lewis Smedes has said that forgiveness is freedom from prison in the sense that it frees a relationship from the tangles of bitterness and pain of bearing grudges. Moreover, through an act of forgiveness, one realizes that the prisoner set free is actually oneself. Indeed, true spiritual richness lies in being rich in heart, to have a big heart to forgive.

    “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” (Lewis Smedes)

    Forgiveness: As Initiative
    Another Chinese word for forgiveness comprises of 2 words: 原諒. The first word '原' (yuan) means primary, original or first. The other word '諒' refers to forgiveness and understanding. In other words, when the two words are put together, it tells us the way forgiving needs to be done. True forgiveness is the act of deciding to take the first step in understanding the need to forgive and then truly making the primary initiative to seek and to exercise forgiveness in all. In other words, it is not a question of waiting for others to recognize they are wrong. It is our initiative to take the first step to understand where the other party is coming from, and whether we felt grieved or unfairly hurt, we take the first step to seek reconciliation. This must come with no conditions attached. The only reason in our minds is: We forgive because we have been forgiven. It is because our God (the Master) has forgiven us our debts, we (Big Servant) need to learn to forgive others (Small Servant) their smaller debts. If we continue to harp upon our justified positions, claiming that we were never wrong in the first place, remember that we have been bought at a great price, redeemed with a huge sacrifice. Only then can we realize that the offenses others made against us, will be strangely small and dim. In fact, why should we allow small offenses to become a barrier (for them and us) to our relationship with God?

    The Greek (ἀφίημι, aphiemi) for forgiveness can also mean 'to neglect, leave alone.' It tells us that forgiving has an element of choosing NOT to remember past offenses. This is not the same as forgetting. There are things in life that can never be erased. However, we can certainly commit ourselves NEVER to let them get in the way of giving our adversaries or our offenders the neighbourly love we are called to give. I enclose two prayers for your reflection. The first is a simple Nigerian prayer about the need to ask God to forgive us in our hearts. The second is a prayer for God to help us forgive in our relationships, through Christ alone. This second prayer is another way to summarize my message on forgiveness. It is worth the reading, the thinking and the praying.

    #1 - Prayer of a Nigerian Christian
    "God in heaven, you have helped my life to grow like a tree. Now something has happened. Satan, like a bird, has carried in one twig of his own choosing after another. Before I knew it he had built a dwelling place and was living in it. Tonight, my Father, I am throwing out both the bird and the nest." (Oxford Book of Prayers, p107)

    #2 - In Christ Alone
    "Almighty God, Spirit of purity and grace, in asking thy forgiveness I cannot claim a right to be forgiven but only cast myself upon thine unbounded love.
    I can plead no merit or desert:
    I can plead no extenuating circumstances:
    I cannot plead the frailty of my nature:
    I cannot plead the force of the temptations I encounter:
    I cannot plead the persuasions of others who led me astray:
    I can only say, for the sake of Jesus Christ they Son, my Lord. Amen.
    John Baillie (Scottish theologian, 1886-1960)

    Monday, February 09, 2009

    A Telephone Prayer

    Yesterday's sermon is still on my mind. It is about forgiveness. This prayer is a prayer that can be used to seek forgiveness for not connecting with people, when one has the chance. In an age where everything seems to be moving in cyber-speed, human communications get squeezed into our convenient schedule, straitjacketed into our sterotyped images and compressed into words without meaning. Isn't that a modern way of "Having Eyes that do not see or ears that do not hear?" Translated, we may be living in an age where technologies not only connects us, it can disconnect us as easily as well. For all its benefits, let us not forget that there are flaws. Real flaws, that unless we realize that technological speed does not equal human pace, we will be spinning ourselves quickly into oblivion faster and sooner. Worse, our attitudes can spread to the younger ones who quickly pick up our habits and will eventually out-SMS, out-Facebook, out-email and out-communicate us into obsolescence.

    "I have just hung up; why did he telephone?
    I don't know.... Oh! I get it . . .
    I talked a lot and listened very little.

    Forgive me, Lord, it was a monologue and not a dialogue.
    I explained my idea and did not get his;
    Since I didn't listen, I learned nothing,
    Since I didn't listen, I didn't help,
    Since I didn't listen, we didn't communicate.

    Forgive me, Lord, for we were connected,
    and now we are cut off." (Michel Quoist)

    Honesty Coffee Shop (Philippines) ... some Reflections

    (Credit: OutofTownBlog)

    Imagine a coffee ship with no staff, no locks and no security devices except the plain conscience of an honest heart. Called "Honesty Coffee Shop," this tourist sensation in Ivana in the Philippines is becoming a hit not only with the locals but with foreigners as well. The idea is simple. Anyone who patronizes the coffee shop, simply needs to refer to a standard price list inside the shop and pay for whatever they use or consume. In a town where the mayor reports 'zero crime rate,' it reflects the kind of culture that the town supports.

    Personal Experience
    I remember a couple of years ago when I was traveling in the Melbourne countryside in Australia. Along the way, there was a roadside fruit stall with fruits, a basket but no one was there to man it. Designed like a self-service kiosk, there is a price list displayed prominently on the side, detailing the price of each fruit. We bought some and left a tip as well. The fruits were not only sweet and juicy, the whole experience left a great feeling of being trusted to be fair. Kudos to the owners, even though I felt that part of the reasons for the self-service kiosk is to cut down costs of manning the stall. The owners might have figured out that it is more expensive to put a human person at the stall when he/she could have done something else more productive, like watering or tending the plantation. At that time, I have heard that some unscrupulous visitors at some other similar stalls, not only did not pay for the fruits but took all the money as well!

    When I was spending the New Year in Seattle, I encountered a situation where honesty is to be learned and cultivated. Newspaper bins are self-service, based on a single payment for a single copy of each newspaper. If we observe the system, it is practically possible for one to pay one time, but carry out the whole stack of papers away, before closing the door of the bin. Fortunately, these cases are rare. My kids were fiddling away with some of the bin doors out of curiosity. There was one bin in which the door was not firmly closed. Excitedly, my kids took out a copy of USAToday and showed me, telling me that it costs nothing! I was thrilled initially, but my smile gradually turns into a frown when I realize that it is an important teaching moment for all. I took out my coin purse, removed 5 quarters and insisted that they be put back into a USAToday newspaper bin. That is my way of telling my children that nothing is for free. We may think that the faulty system allows us to take things for free, but God is always watching. I can sense my kids feeling a little let-down for they thought that they can help the family save some money. I want them to learn that even though we are not rich, where daddy is still a student, we should not take advantage of others. It has been a personal financial sacrifice for me to study theology and teach the Bible to people in church and Christian communities. Just yesterday, I read about my ex-colleagues climbing an even higher level of their organization, with better pay and benefits. For a moment, I was lamenting on thoughts like:
    • "O! I could have been Vice-President by now."
    • "My annual pay should be 6-digits......"
    • "I should have been invited to a director position in one of those charity places."
    I told myself to snap out of it. Life is not measured in terms of dollars and sense. A life in Christ is a life of faith. I need to trust God to provide for me and my family's daily needs as I faithfully serve God where I am.

    Heaven will certainly be full of honesty and righteousness. People will be free to roam without worry of harm. They trust one another and under the lordship of their heavenly father, they choose to behave in a manner that glorifies God, bring neighborly love one to another. Perhaps, we can learn from the owners of the Honesty Coffee Shop, that not only honesty is the best policy, it is the policy that will bring out the best in people. Some say it may trigger greed and the worse out of unrepentant hearts. Again, let us not judge people for God is the ultimate judge. More pictures can be seen from the links below.


    1) Out of Town Blog
    2) Asia1

    Wednesday, February 04, 2009

    "A Nun Grading Papers" (good laugh)

    Someone sent me this hilarious email. #3, #9, #10, #14 and especially #25 are my favourites.
    A Nun Grading Papers

    Can you imagine yourself to be the nun that is sitting at her desk grading these papers all the while trying to keep a straight face and maintain her composure!



























    Tuesday, February 03, 2009

    "Fundamentals of Prosperity"

    Roger Ward Babson (1875-1967) is best known for founding Babson College, Massachusetts in the USA. When I was at Babson College for corporate training in 2000, I can sense a strong entrepreneurial ethos in the school. Little did I know that this founder is a fervent Christian who talks solid Christian values in his walk and talk. One of his classic contributions is a small book called: "Fundamentals of Prosperity" (Roger Babson, Fundamentals of Prosperity, NY: Fleming H Revell, 1920). This book has been republished in 2003 by Kessinger Publishing. It is available free on Gutenberg. Nine years after the publication of this book, the Great Depression began. It makes us wonder how many people actually heeded Babson's warning that undue focus on 'structure above ground' without adequate emphasis on the foundations underneath is a recipe for disaster. His main point parallels Jesus's teaching on building our house on solid rock instead of sand. Writing for business people, he is concerned for the future of the country, where people tend to focus more on 'structure above ground' instead of the critical foundations below the earth. The trouble increases when people continue to pile up "ten-story building on a foundation meant for only a two or three story building." (7)

    Writing to business people, before modern marketplace theology becomes popular, Babson is already talking about Christianity in the marketplace. He thinks that business people are responsible for 2 things:
    1. NEGATIVE: For concentrating too much on the structures above ground without due concern for the foundation;
    2. POSITIVE: Business people can at the same time salvage the situation by strengthening the foundation while there is still time and opportunity.
    Sources of Prosperity He then proceeds to talk about what are the key sources of prosperity, namely Integrity, Faith, Industry, Cooperation and factors of godliness. With regards to financial and economic panics, he wisely said:
    Panics are caused by spiritual causes rather than financial. Prosperity is the result of righteousness rather than of material things. (72)
    Using statistics from the government, he argues that situations of economic depression is a result of "extravagance, inefficiency and corruption," happening during prosperity times. Conversely, an economy recovers after a period of "industry and righteousness" during depression times. In other words, all the fruits of hard work and godly enterprise (contributing to prosperity) can be easily wiped out through extravagance, greed, inefficiency and corruption (which contributes to economic fallout). My Reflections on Babson's work Babson laments that the business people during his time were too concerned with structures above without adequate consideration for the foundation. I think modern times has not changed that peculiar habit. In fact, our modern society is drugged with quick-fixes, instant-solutions and easy-to-use methods. Moreover, Do-It-Yourself syndrome is everywhere, leading to an alarming reduction of dependence on one another. Moreover, our modern perception of 'prosperity' has become tainted with materialism. To be prosperous easily means a bigger car or a better house. It means bigger salaries or higher status through corporate promotions. Babson rightfully points us to the reasons why prosperity are there in the first place.
    • Without INTEGRITY, our investments are useless.
      For example, take the signing of a contract. It involves at least four levels of integrity. At the first level, we rely on the integrity of the lawyers who draft the agreement. Secondly, we need the integrity of the ones signing the documents on our behalf. Third, we need the integrity of the authorities and law courts to enforce any agreements. Fourthly, we depend on the integrity of the community at large to recognize the validity of such a transaction.
    • Without FAITH, one dares not venture to tap unexplored territory
      Like one who has a half-empty-jug mentality, One sees the problem and asks why? The one with a half-full-jug thinking will ask: Why not?
    • INDUSTRY, not genius is the mother of invention The saying goes that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Without the hard work of sowing, watering and plowing the ground, there is no fruit and thus no reaping. Someone has to do the hard work. We must refrain from thinking that profits can be sustained by simply relying on a keen sense of lucky judgment like a chance at a jackpot prize. For every one lucky winner, there are thousands, even millions of unlucky ones.
    • Without COOPERATION, there is no prosperity
      With the Internet and the highly internetworked societies today, everything that can be designed and produced requires cooperation. What began in the US has now affected many places around the world.
    Babson proposes that we invest more in the study of the 'soul.' He observes rightfully that scholarships nowadays are given largely to people to build "structures above" rather than funds to strengthen people's training on Integrity, Faith, Cooperation, Industry, Ethical Behaviour and spirituality. We can easily hire an Ivy-League graduate, full of experience with blue-chip companies. However, can we detect that person's integrity, good ethical behaviour and righteous living? Human resources are indeed one of the most important assets of the organization. Recent examples show us the importance of integrity. Nick Leeson brought down Barings bank in 1995 in a major financial scandal. Recently, we hear about the Madoff scandal which has since caused the suicide of several people too distraught about the huge losses. Let us ask ourselves. Will we invest 100 million dollars into a fund with suspicious fund managers? No. Will we build tall buildings on a shaky foundation or an earthquake prone area? Probably not. Will we hire a high-class, highly educated, likable sweet talker, who can potentially climb up the ranks and bring down the entire corporation? Or will we prefer to look at character more than the physical impressions? Difficult to tell the difference. Then shouldn't we start to invest in scholarships and funds to train people in foundational skills, of ethical behaviour and righteous living, of faith and honesty to God? Unfortunately, our society is still too 'above structured' than foundational minded. How can we change that? I don't know, except to pray the Word, preach the Word and to share the Word. Let me end with Babson's classic words on the ups and downs of the economy.
    "Whenever this line of religious interest turns downward and reaches a low level, history shows that it is time to prepare for a reaction and depression in business conditions. Every great panic we have ever had has been foreshadowed by a general decline in observance of religious principles. On the other hand, when the line of religious interest begins to climb and the nation turns again to the simple mode of living laid by in the Bible, then it is time to make ready for a period of business prosperity." (86)


    Praying For Bread

    This week is prayer week at the church I am serving in. On Sunday, we had a prayer through the Scriptures session in which I try to encourage members to learn to pray to God using God's Word. I believe that one reason why people do not pray often enough is because they do not exactly know how to pray. Some will simply use the Lord's Prayer as the main way. I was trying to coax members to go beyond this, and to use the whole of God's word. One way is through specific word emphasis. At the end of it all, I realized how much I have personally enjoyed the session, feeling that our focus of our prayers is not on our prayer requests but on God. Indeed, when we pray "Give us this day our daily bread," so often we can become so concerned about the 'bread' that we tend to see God as a means to that end. Rather, when we pray 'Give us this day our daily bread,' it is more important to realize that this statement is a confession of our DEPENDENCE ON GOD. It is a verbal statement that no one else except God who can give us our daily needs.

    Suppose for example, I pray for a loaf of bread. Someone may ask: "Why pray when you can go to Safeway to buy a loaf? In fact, there are tonnes of bread, all different flavours from raisin-filled to multigrain; from French baguettes to yummy croissants. So why bother to pray when you can buy it using your debit/credit card?"

    I have to agree, to a certain extent. Why pray when we can easily go to the supermarket or provision stores to buy it? Unless of course, there is something else Jesus wants us to learn about. I believe it is this dependence on God who not only provides us our physical loaf of bread through our ability to buy, but to help us realize that these kinds of bread are but a hint of the everlasting Bread of life: Jesus himself.

    The pattern is similar. The woman at the well was spiritually myopic when she talks about mere water at the well. Jesus guides her to realize that Jesus is the Water of life (John 4). Jesus is also the Bread of Life (John 6). He reminds us:

    John 6:27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
    John 6:28 ¶ Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
    John 6:29 ¶ Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
    The bread of life is of believing in Jesus, of dependence on God for our daily needs. Let me repeat, when we ask for our daily bread, our focus is not satisfying our stomachs by the eating of the physical bread but the letting our anxious hearts find pleasure and rest in the Bread of Life: Jesus.

    So go ahead to buy that bread when there is money in your wallet. The Lord has graciously provided us a means to earn that money. Remember always that whatever we have or will be having is ultimately from God, just like how God feeds the sparrows, the birds in the air.

    The devotional: "Our Daily Bread," founded in 1956, is preciously a ministry that encourages Christians to depend on God daily. It is not the bread per se but the person providing us our daily needs so that we can exercise deeper dependence on God each day. Cultivate our relationship with God through prayer. Develop that trust in God by praying. Love God in the way of prayer. If a Christian claims to love God, he will find that prayer is almost always the key to the heart of our heavenly Father. Like a lover who longs to rush home from work so that he can make that phone call to hear the voice of his beloved. It is like that longing heart that is worried about not able to make that connection with God because he is too busy. Too often we claim to work for God that we forget that we are called to work WITH God. What makes anyone think that he/she can work FOR God on his own strength? As we pray: "Give us this day our daily bread," we are also asking God to help us by coming alongside with us, not for God to work with us, but for us to work with God.

    Our hearts have a sinful way that tries to claim credit for what is not due to us. I find this prayer very healing for the soul. May you benefit from it.
    Prayer when opening door:
            I pray thee, Lord to open the door of my heart to receive thee within my heart.

    When washing clothes:
            I pray thee, Lord, to wash my heart, making myself white as snow.

    When sweeping floors:
            I pray thee, Lord, to sweep away my heart's uncleanness, that my heart may always be pure.

    When pouring oil:
            I pray thee Lord, to give me wisdom like the wise virgins who always had oil in their vessels.

    When posting a letter:
            I pray thee Lord, to add to me faith upon faith, that I may always have communication with thee.

    When lighting lamps:
            I pray thee Lord, to make my deeds excellent like lamps before others, and more, to place thy true light within my heart.

    When watering flowers:
            I pray thee Lord, to send down spiritual rain into my heart, to germinate the good seed there.

    When boiling water for tea:
            I pray thee Lord, to send down spiritual fire to burn away the coldness of my heart and that I may always be hot-hearted in serving thee.

    (Credit: George Appleton, ed. The Oxford Book of Prayer, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, p102)
    You might be asking, 'What about the men?' Well, there is also a prayer by the Chinese Christian Men. For this you will have to stay tuned.......

    Till then, as you pray for bread, remember that it is praying a DEPENDENCE on God, not a focus on the plain bread which easily grows mold and perishes. Jesus is our bread of life.


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