Friday, August 31, 2012

Level 3 Leadership: Production Leadership

In Part 3 of the leadership series, John Maxwell calls this "Production" level of leadership. While the first level is positional leadership, deals more with rights and status in the hierarchy, and the second that works on a relationship level, and the motivation of followers to heed the leaders, this third level focuses on efficiency and efficacy. At this level, people follow the leader on the basis of what works, and what they have done or able to do for the group. It is a higher level mainly because of the credibility that comes with the leadership. After all, who wants to follow a leader who is good for nothing? Such leaders do the following:
  • They are effective in what they do
  • They deliver results
  • They set the standards for all to see
  • They bring clarity and reality to the vision setting process
  • They solve problems
  • They move the organization along instead of allowing it to stagnate
  • They build teams.
A) Disadvantages of Production Level Leadership

According to Maxwell, there are four dangers to such level of leadership. Firstly, not all producers are leaders. While production is good, sometimes, leadership requires more than mere results. For example, good technical skills may not necessarily mean good people skills. Secondly, production leaders may have an unhealthy sense of responsibility, when it is the team who is expected to perform, and not just the leader. This easily leads to overwork and an unbalanced shouldering of burdens. Sometimes at this level, it is tough to delegate. Thirdly, making decisions may be difficult. If leaders are unable to make tough decisions, the failure to make them is often more fatal. Perseverence and courage is essential to make tough decisions, and to be decisive in making them. Finally, it is tough to balance level 2 with level 3 leadership. When relationships and results clash, leaders are faced with a challenging situation.

B) Advantages of Production Level Leadership

Maxwell brings out 6 advantages.
  1. It gives leader the credibility he needs, when the results are obtained.
  2. It sets a clear standard for all to see
  3. It brings clarity and vision
  4. It solves problems
  5. It creates momentum for the whole team
  6. It is the foundation of team building.
C) Cultivating Level 3 Leadership

Maxwell describes 6 ways to develop and cultivate this production leadership.  Firstly, a leader grows in understanding how his gifts are linked to getting results. When a leader is more self-aware, he often becomes a better leader. Secondly, the vision casting establishes a clarity, which leads to a commitment toward a successful fulfillment of the vision. Thirdly, by developing people through teamwork, people will be better team players which usually mean better results. Fourthly, setting priorities enable the wise distribution of limited resources. Fifthly, one improves level 3 leadership through being change agents. Finally, the focus on the end goal enables one to be intentional and purposeful.

My Comments

In Christian organizations, sometimes we can commit one or two major errors. We tend to think that relationships are so important that we de-emphasize the importance of results. Or we can comfort one another by saying that the process is more important than the product. That is simply not true. Knowing the process is perhaps more applicable to classroom learning. In the school of hard knocks, results matter a lot. The second error is to become so fixated on results that we sacrifice relationships. The way forward is to remember to seek God for wisdom how to hold all three levels of leadership in tandem. We need to learn to use Level 1 leadership unashamedly. There is no need to be shy. We are called or appointed to that position, so behave accordingly but humbly. We need to adopt Level 2 leadership because relationships are important in a Christian organization. We need to have Level 3 leadership so that results are achieved. Above all, communications and constant relating is key to growing the leader and the team.

Next week, I will write on Level 4 leadership: People Development.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

In Remembrance of my Dad (1941-2010)

Today is a solemn day. It's my dad's second death Anniversary. Time flies. Memory floods eyes. Mood swings. Remembrance brings back many years. My dad loves his garden. He populates it often with new pot s of plants and exquisite flowers.  I love my garden. I populate them with memories of nature, of God, and of my dad's love for nature.

Today, I remember my dad. I remember how he cares for my mum, albeit quietly. He has a quiet disposition, but when he speaks, his words are weighty. He has a good heart, willing to help wherever possible, and ready to give, especially to all things family.

I remember his passion for sports. Each Olympics, the TV will be on many hours. He never grows tired of watching top quality sports, even the uncommon ones. Soccer is one of his favourites. I remember him paying top dollar back in 1974 for a colour TV, so that he can catch the World Cup Soccer tournament. I remember how he will buy tickets to the National Stadium to catch the Malaysia Cup games.

I remember his care for my brothers and I. Regardless of the financial ups and downs, we always have food on the table. His favourite is eating out. From the hawker centers at the Orchard Road Car Park, to Newton Circus, from eating durians at the open market, to eating satay back home, his love for food is contagious. We too love to eat durians, cockles, and all kinds of cooked food. Eating out is his delight.

I remember his deteriorating physical state toward his last years. The first stroke left him half able to move. The second stroke rendered him 90% dependent on external help. My mum took the brunt of the caring. In the later years, a good domestic helper provided needed relief.

Dad, you are loved. Your grandchildren remember you. Your sons remember you. We miss you. Rest in peace in Jesus.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Midweek Meditation: Be Still

It is important, even necessary to be still. When we still our hearts, we are actually preparing our inner selves to reflect on what is more important. We begin to calibrate our spiritual compasses. We sharpen our focus while tuning out the unimportant. We pray to God to restore us.

(Credit: Tanchio Household Pjd)
Consider the famous hymn by Catharina von Schelegel (1697-1768), the German hymn writer, who was inspired by Psalm 46:10-11. Incidentally, this hymn has been said to be the favourite hymn of the famous runner, Eric Liddell of "Chariots of Fire" fame.

  1. Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side; Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; Leave to thy God to order and provide; In every change He faithful will remain. Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
  2. Be still, my soul; thy God doth undertake To guide the future as He has the past. Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake; All now mysterious shall be bright at last. Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.
  3. Be still, my soul, though dearest friends depart And all is darkened in the vale of tears; Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart, Who comes to soothe thy sorrows and thy fears. Be still, my soul; thy Jesus can repay From His own fulness all He takes away.
  4. Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on When we shall be forever with the Lord, When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone, Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored. Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past, All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.
Click here to listen to a beautiful rendition of the hymn, "Be still my soul."


Monday, August 27, 2012

BookPastor >> "A Testament of Devotion" (Thomas R Kelly)

TITLE: A Testament of Devotion
AUTHOR: Thomas R. Kelly
PUBLISHER: London: Quaker Home Service, 1979, (114 pages).

This is a classic devotional in the best tradition of the Quakers. Quiet but confident, Earnest yet humble, small-sized but big in contemplativeness, this is truly one of the greatest spiritual literature from the pen of a twentieth century author. First published in 1941, this book has become so popular that it has gone through multiple reprints by different publishers. Kelly, writing from the Quaker tradition, has very little to say about himself but a lot to say about our response to God. Douglas B Steere fills in a much needed preface that describes to readers the person of Thomas R. Kelly.

Kelly is strongly motivated to learn about how things work. His hunger for life fuels his hunger for God. Through this hunger, he goes on to complete a PhD at Hartford Theological Seminary. He goes on to teach at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. His earlier passion for science similarly drives his passion for philosophical method. As much as he is eager to learn, he is also eager to teach. His lectures are often so rich and original that students are moved by his creativity and authenticity. What is most distinct is the way Kelly's inner life blossoms as he personally discovers God and receives a life changing experience. Devotion becomes his new drive. This book is a collection of his lectures. Five themes are brought together to make this book a testament of devotion.

Chapter 1 - The Light Within

Devotion begins introspectively. It is the awareness of the inside that guides the behaviour on the outside. God touches us from the inside out, illuminating the light within us so that we can truly become the light of the world.

"It is a Light Within which illumines the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories upon the face of men. It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it. It is the Shekinah of the soul, the presence in the midst. Here is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And He is within us all." (27)

Our response is inner adoration, joy, gratitude, surrender, worship, and constant listening. This is sustatined through continued spiritual practices of good thinking and inner discipline. Kelly talks of two levels of ordering our mental life. At the first level, it is one of activism where we work hard. At the second level, we become more aware of divine presence through prayer, through worship, through a gentle receptiveness to God. What is most interesting is that these two levels cultivate each other. Such devotions at both levels are both painful as well as rewarding. Painful because of the gaps in moving from one level to the other which creates a kind of a start-stop movement which can be frustrating. Rewarding because of the sweetness of having a greater ease of thinking about God. One thing Kelly highlights is that the more we grow in God, the simpler our devotions. This process can be experienced through the increasing comfort of letting God work in us. Another way of putting this reward is as follows. If we begin our devotional life as if "God expects a lot from us." The hope is that once we arrive in God, we will realize that "God gives everything."

Chapter 2 - Holy Obedience

Beginning with a description on how greatly God pursues us His beloved, Kelly points to the nature of true obedience. Complete obedience is wholly and holy. It is without reservation all for God. Using Meister Eckhart's description of many first-half people, and few who bothers to complete the other half, while the journey is fraught with difficulties and temptations, we have the joy and hope of being encouraged that many saints of old have made the journey and have succeeded. Holy obedience is possible and attainable. There are several gateways to holy obedience. Firstly, it is the meeting of God and men, where we realized that all power comes from God alone. It is a state where the "soul is swept" into God's loving Centre. Our response to God comes through an earnest desire to want God. Some of the mystics of old calls this the "passive way." There is the "active way." This leads us to the second gateway, to "begin where we are." Obey whatever we can. Obey where we are. The third gateway is NOT to be discouraged when we slip back to our old ways. Do not let self-accusation stop us in devotions. The fourth gateway is to learn to submit to God for the results. This holy obedience thus depends on God from beginning to end. Humility and holiness are the twin fruits of such holy obedience. The third and fourth fruits are suffering and simplicity respectively.

Chapter 3 - The Blessed Community

Kelly progresses from individual devotionals to a desire for community with the people of God. True devotions that begin inside never grows inwards but outwards. One grows in friendship. One aligns with one another. Love grows. Together, the people of God discover God's love. Differences are marginalized, with commoness in God becoming the central identity.

"And this Fellowship is deeper than democracy, conceived as an ideal of group living. It is a theocracy wherein God rules and guides and directs His listening children. The centre of authority is not in man, not in the group, but in the creative God Himself. Nor do all members share equally in spiritual discernment, but upon some falls more clearly the revealing light of His guiding will." (78)

Chapter 4 - The Eternal Now and Social Concern

Kelly continues his spiritual trajectory from individual to community, and from community to the society at large. Key to this understanding of "eternal now" is the delicate balance of heavenly desiring and earthly living. We either take heaven too seriously that we forget about the present earth, or we take earth too seriously at the expense of hope of heaven. Kelly urges us to hold both the time now and the timelessness future. What truly makes the spiritual experience special is not our man-made diligence to join the earthly work with heavenly hope, but the sudden experience that it is God who is behind everything. Such an experience of God that joins the time and the timeless is evident through three kinds of fruits. First, it is joy unspeakable. Second, it is love. Third, it is peace. This peace erases earthly anxieties. It takes away a performance mindset in many believers. This brings us then to the motivation for social concerns.

"We have tried to discover the grounds of the social responsibility and the social sensitivity of Friends. It is not in mere humanitarianism. It is not in mere pity. It is not in mere obedience to Bible commands. It is not in anything earthly. The social concern of Friends is grounded in an experience - an experience of the Love of God and of the impulse to saviorhood inherent in the fresh quickening of that Life. Social concern is the dynamic Life of God at work in the world, made special and emphatic and unique, particularized in each individual or group who is sensitive and tender in the leading-strings of love. A concern is God-initiated, often surprising, always holy, for the Life of God is breaking through into the world. Its execution is in peace and power and astounding faith and joy, for in unhurried serenity the Eternal is at work in the midst of time, triumphantly bringing all things up unto Himself." (102)

Chapter 5 - The Simplification of Life

This chapter comes back full circle to the inner life of the believer. Far too often, we tend to think that the problem of life or the solution to it lies out there. The fact is, there is much work to be done in us. We have been guilty of making the world too complex for our own good. As a result, we are "unhappy, uneasy, strained, oppressed, and fearful we shall be shallow."

Simplicity means living from the Center. It means living with a sole focus on God. In contrast, our complex lives lie in being too worldly. Too many idols. Instead of listening to only one voice, our ears are drowned out by the many noises. Simplicity means singleness of mind, singleness of sight, and silently watching for God. Here are some of the questions that Kelly use to challenge us toward simplicity in God.

"Do you really want to live out your lives, every moment of your lives, in His Presence? Do you long for Him, crave Him? Do you love His Presence? Does every drop of blood in your body love Him? Does every breath you draw breathe a prayer, a praise to Him? Do you sing and dance within yourselves, as you glory in His love? Have you set yourselves to be His, and only His, walking every moment in holy obedience?" (109)

My Thoughts

This book is dense with its focus on God and soaked with spiritual wisdom. Written from a person who has experienced the Center in God, it invites readers to enter into this journey toward God. It is a testimony of God's grace to men that all of our devotions begin with God. It is a trial of challenges that one needs to overcome in order to disentangle oneself from the tyranny of worldliness, and the deceptions of self-strengths. It is a testament of devotion that leads one from inside to God, from individual to community, from community to social concerns, and from social concerns, back to a needed reminder that our lives need simplification. This book is a guide for deeper devotions. The best way to use this book is with a spiritual guide, or a more mature believer.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Level 2 Leadership: Permission Leadership

In this second level of leadership by John C. Maxwell, the gist of leading at this level is simply liking people, and people liking you. Compared with level 1, where one leads mainly on the basis of position or title, at level 2, people essentially chooses to follow us because they "want to." In fact, moving from level 1 to 2 is a sign of growth in the leader. Woe to those leaders who are stuck at level 1. At Level 2, we move from position to relationship, one that is more powerful that price, than delivery, than quality, than service.

John Maxwell lists the following advantages and disadvantages of "permission" level leadership. I summarize them in the following table for ease of reference.

It makes "work more enjoyable" It "appears too soft for some people."
It "increases the energy level" It "can be frustrating for achievers"
It "opens up channels of communication." It "can be taken advantage of"
It "focuses on the value of each person." It "requires openness to be effective."
It "nurtures trust." It "is difficult for people who are not naturally likable."
It "forces you to deal with the whole person."

(Credit: John C. Maxwell)
If we take our time to consider, we can easily come up with our own sets of advantages and disadvantages at this level leadership. What is important is that we need to be able to grow in our leadership skills and mature. I want to spend some time on the following suggestions on how to move to this level of leadership. At the same time, I will make some comments as I go along.

In the book by John Maxwell, he gives us five strategies in order to move to Level 2.

1) "Connect with Yourself Before Trying to Connect with Others"

Maxwell argues strongly that one needs to know self before knowing others. In self-awareness, one needs to size themselves up. In self-image one needs to get along with themselves comfortably. In self-honesty, one cannot lie about oneself to self. In self-responsibility, one needs to recognize the doing that comes with the knowing.

The good point about this is self-knowledge and an appropriate understanding of one's limitations and potential. A better word to use would be appropriate knowing of oneself. I agree that knowing self is a critical step in leadership. Having said that, I can understand if there is anyone disturbed about this level of self-focus. There is also a danger of a leader becoming too self-absorbed or self-seeking in such a focus. That is why for Christians, leaders need to cultivate a worshipful heart. In worship, one learns to center on God, and let the Holy Spirit show us the way to be better leaders for God's sake, and wisdom to lead for the people's sake.

2) "Develop a People-Oriented Leadership Style"
This is a key trait in level 2 leadership. Due to a heightened level of relational leadership, knowing self needs to lead to knowing others as well. Maxwell explains:

"If you want to be successful on Level 2, you must think less in terms of systems and more in terms of people's emotions. You must think more in terms of human capacity and less in terms of regulations. you must think more in terms of buy-in and less in terms of procedures. In other words, you must think of people before you try to achieve progress. To do that as a permissional leader, you must exhibit a consistent mood, maintain an optimistic attitude, possess a listening ear, and present to others your authentic self." (John C. Maxwell, The 5 Levels of Leadership, New York, NY: Center Street, 2011, p108)

I applaud Maxwell for the idea of moving from systems to people, and to see beyond regulations, procedures, and be authentic with people. Yet, I am somewhat troubled by his use of "must." There is a compulsion that appears more systemic rather than authentic. It sounds a little more leadership regime discipline rather than a personable kind of a disposition. The idea is good, but the implementation needs some tweaking. Perhaps, a Level 2 leader ought to train himself to be more relational by watching the inner heart, and guiding it toward willing submission to put others more important than self. Otherwise, readers may unwittingly see the "musts" as strategies to achieve gains for self. Imagine a leader who is only self-seeking, to be focused on promoting to Level 2 for self-glorification. That will be wrong. I am sure that is not Maxwell's intention, but I want to simply state this as a precaution. Otherwise, we may be guilty of using people for our own gains. Having said that, Maxwell admits later that such a way may be "manipulative" and recognizes the "fine line between manipulating people and motivating them." What I am concerned is the subtle manipulating of self that is not in line with God's prompting. For example, how do we know who to approach more or less? Surely, wisdom is necessary for spiritual leadership. 

3) "Practice the Golden Rule"

This particular advice is a useful guide on how to lead.  In fact, it will hardly go wrong as this biblical teaching is also universally treated as truth by many other religions and philosophies. Do to others what you want others to do to you.

4) "Become the Chief Encourager of Your Team"

There is no rule against kindness. For all our words and works, one act of kindness can touch lives in a way that no other way can reach. I think this kind of encouragement needs to be on the lips of every Christian leader.

5) "Strike a Balance between Care and Candor"

Maxwell spends quite a lot of time on this. Essentially, it means speaking the truth in love. One needs to learn when to establish and when to expand the relationship. Through care, one learns to value the person, to firm up the relationship, to define, and to allow greater candor. Through candor, one values the person's potential, the relationship, and guide the relationship to a new level. Both care and candor are needed to enhance the relationship. Of all the five points, I find this most helpful.

Maxwell summarizes this level of leadership by urging leaders to serve others, to be influential in a good way, to cultivate trusting, to connect well, to learn to be persuasive.

Part Three will be published next week.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Midweek Meditation: Desiring God

Here is another prayer that we can learn from Thomas Merton. Sometimes, when we pray, we tend to be so full of ourselves, filled with wanting our material wants be met. In doing so, we miss out the joy and delight of prayer: Desiring God.

"O my God, I don't care about anything; 
All I know is that I want to love You.
I want my will to disappear in Your will.
I want to be one spirit with You.
I want to become all Your desires and thoughts.
I want to live in the middle of Your Trinity 
and praise You with all the flames of Your own praise.

O my God, knowing all this, 
why do You leave me alone in my selfishness and in my vanity and pride,
instead of drawing me into the midst of Your love?
My God, do not delay any longer 
to make me a saint and to make me one with You,
and do not delay to live in me.
And if it requires a sacrifice, 
You will give me the courage to make all sacrifices.
You will consumer me in Your own immense love.
So do not be afraid of my weakness, O God,
because You can do everything.
I believe in Your love above all things.
I have forgotten everything else (that is, I want to).
I live for Your love, if You will only make me live so."

(Thomas Merton, Dialogues with Silence, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001, p31)

Pray not to seek earthly treasures. Pray for the heavenly Kingdom be done, and trust God to provide our earthly needs. One more thing. When we pray, we are actually doing heart surgery. We let the Spirit of God prompt us about where our desires are. For God? Or for the fulfilment of our wants?


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Five Things Worth Doing Before You Die

Last Sunday, in a sermon entitled "The Middle Years: Crisis? What Crisis?" the preacher tries to share a small video clip to help drill in the point that we need to prioritize our more important things in life. Unfortunately, the video only displays the pictures and the music, but lacks the spoken voices. A dear brother in Christ has found this video clip and has shared it over email. As a service, here are some of my thoughts as well as an embedded segment of the video clip below. Let me summarize this article as "Five Things Worth Doing Before You Die."

1) Reflect and Resolve
See how the opening scene reveals a man who resolves to do what is right and what is important in life. It reminds me of the parable of the Prodigal Son. "When he came to his senses," imply a realization not only what we need to do, but also a resolve to do it.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15:17-20)
Look at how the prodigal son determines to repent, and to go back to his father.

2) Forgive and Ask for Forgiveness
"I suppose I am responsible, and for that I'm sorry" and "I owe that to you." Forgiveness remains a core element of relationships. Are we going to live through life bearing our hurts and our disappointments with people? Perhaps, we can be free from the burden of unforgiveness. I remember one of my favourite authors, Lewis Smedes who beautifully describes forgiveness as follows,

  • "To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you." 
  •  "Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future."
Like the prodigal son, the first thing upon returning to his father is to seek forgiveness. The confession of "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you," is a great reminder that whenever we sin, we sin in two ways. It is firstly sinning against God, and secondly against people. If we are truly God-fearing people, this realization will lead us to seek forgiveness with fellow people as well.

3) Thank Someone and Show Gratitude

Gratitude is another theme in the video. Have we failed to be thankful to God in our lives? Have we failed to show gratitude to our loved ones, our friends, and people living around us? Don't just say it. Show it. The prodigal son demonstrates his gratitude for all his father has been doing. He remembers the abundance that his father has provided even to mere servants. How much more him, as a son? It takes a person who has been blessed in order to bless others. It takes a person who has received much who is able to give much. The trouble is, we tend to take too many things for granted, and in the process, we take other people for granted. The moment we complain about our lack, we fail to acknowledge the plenty that we have ALREADY been given.

4) Find the Joy and Encourage Someone

There is hope. Even though we may not have many years to live, it is important to pass on joy. Last Sunday, the preacher reminds the congregation of the importance to pass the baton to the next generation. That is so important for every Church and Christian organization. Perhaps, leaders at all churches need to take a hard look at themselves, and ask how to help another person, especially a younger person to find joy and encouragement. "Find the joy in your life."

5) Affirm Another

Toward the end of the clip, the narrator speaks to us, "Do something for me." I think this is a wonderful opportunity to pass on the baton. It calls for one to seek out true joy and meaning, in order to pass the finding to the next person or the next generation. That is so important for us, especially for those of us living in an individualistic me-first society. Why are we rushing to make the first million? Why are we eyeing the spanking new car? Why are we climbing the ladder of power? Is it for self-gratification? Or is it for the sake of others? More importantly, how is our worldly pursuit bringing glory and honour to God? Truth is, if we are honest with ourselves, many times, it is all about us.

Do something for others, by first doing something for ourselves. Learn that accumulating wealth, reputation, things, and fame for self is not everything. Use whatever we have to bless, to bring life, and to affirm others.

Some Reservations
Having listed out the five things worth doing, I want to caution readers about the strange theology that is in the clip. "Our lives are streams flowing into the same river toward what heaven lies in the mists beyond the forests." It tends to suggest erroneously that all human beings are on the river to heaven. There is a strong suggestion of universalism, that all roads lead to the same destiny. It is not biblical. If there is any truth, Romans 3:23 says we have all sinned, and Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. That means that if there is any streams, it is one that is flowing automatically into a river of death. For all the nice teachings about the more important things in life, this philosophy thrown in has spoiled the whole clip for me. My suggestion: Watch it but always let the Bible be your guide, and the final say.

A scene from the movie "The Bucket List" which shows the thoughts of a reflective man, going through some of the items of his bucket list of

Monday, August 20, 2012

BookPastor >> "Still" (Lauren F. Winner)

Lauren Winner remains one of my favourite Summer school professors at Regent-College. This book is part memoir, part reflections on faith and life. Immensely personal, readers are invited to share in a journey through healing from brokenness, friendship during loneliness, and faith strengthened amid fear of doubts and desolation. This book was first published at "Panorama of a Book Saint."


TITLE: Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis
AUTHOR: Lauren F. Winner
PUBLISHER:New York, NY: HarperOne, 2012, (248 pages).

This book is raw honesty littered with sparks of creative wit. It distills the author's search for personal authenticity and divine spirituality by setting oneself in a profound stage called the "middle." Beginning with a painful recollection of events and emotions surrounding her crumbling marriage, she opens herself up with her pen, meandering through rivers of critical thoughts and practical theologies. She experiences the lows of being alone again as well as the highs of being in Church, enjoying the God she loves. She encounters walls of questions that forces her to seek out ways to overcome her despair and doubts. Toward the end, the reader can see a struggling author trying to weld together the broken pieces of her relationships, her religious beliefs, and settles in a resolving-yet-not-resolved "mid-faith" position. Yet, these beginnings and the ends are not the definitive vocabulary of this book. What makes this book especially gripping and enduring is her journey to the middle, around the middle, and from the middle. In a nutshell, this book had me at the middle.

There are three reasons why this book is worth reading. Firstly, it is raw honesty that opens up a can of thoughts that surrounds a person's struggle. Some people use food, fun, and frolic to deal with their breakups. Others venture into new age spirituality to escape from their pain. Not Winner. She lets herself be embraced by the warmth and enduring love of friends. I appreciate her personal struggle through church going.

"Sometimes I cannot say much about why I go to church other than what people who go to the gym say: I always feel better once I'm there; I feel better after; it is always good for me, not good in a take-your vitamins way, in a chidingly moralistic way, but in a palpable way. Perhaps to say this is to turn religion into therapy. But church is therapy, that is one of many things it is, and as my friend Mike once told me, the real problem lies not in recognizing the therapeutic balm in the gospel;the real problem is going through life thinking that the health you need can be found anywhere else." (33-4)

Secondly, she lingers on thoughts of God and her faith, through Church going, through her struggles with anxiety, through literature of John Updike, Emily Dickinson, and Anne Sexton, the Biblical characters, as well as the spiritual masters. She indulges her fondness for spirituality in both her spiritual conversations with her spiritual director, as well as her reflections on the spiritual masters of old. Sprinkled throughout the book, there are snippets of spiritual insights from Frances de Sales, Margaret Funk, the desert fathers, Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, Augustine, and many more. What I find most fascinating is her weaving of her Jewish upbringing and Christian teaching, culminating in a very nuanced understanding of biblical characters and stories. One example is her description of Purim in the book of Esther. Here are some of her very memorable reflection of how the Book of Esther can also be called the book of the hidden God.

"I wonder: when Jesus comes back, when God consummates God's program, when redemption is complete, will it be possible for God to hide? I wonder if the trick is not drinking until you can't tell the difference between Mordecai and Haman, but until you can't tell the difference between God's hiddenness and God's presence, or perhaps until you can't tell the difference between God's hiddenness and God's absence, for that finally is the question, that is the anguish - to abide in God's hiddenness is one thing, to abide in God's absence is altogether something else." (115)

Finally, my favourite part of the book lies in her gentle and firm squeezing out of the meaning of the middle voice. Such a mood effectively counters the impatience of a culture of immediate gratification, and prepares one to enter into a humble spirit that rises in anticipation of God and what God is about to say to us. Such a voice forces us to go through the discipline of the middle, the journey being taken. It makes us question the way we allow ourselves to be locked in by worldliness through easy boredom and frivolous busyness. It pushes us to appreciate the sacraments, the rituals of Church, surprising revelations of Scripture, and the warmth of friends. For a world that prides itself as the main thing, Winner has reminded us again that all of us are small characters trying to make some sense in our small ways what it actually means to live on earth. Most importantly, from a middle position, we begin to realize that we are only a small person in a world made by God, and just like the Jewish day that begins in sunset and culminates in sunrise, believers in Christ who begins their struggles in darkness will see the light more and more.

"If English had a middle voice, I would use it to speak of prayer: I would let the middle remind me that I am changed by this action, by these words, this supplicant's posture; I would let the middle tell me, too, how there is something about me that allows the action to take place - my desire, my endless need. And I will let the middle bespeak the hidden agent, the One who animates my prayer; though undisclosed, though sometimes even forgotten. If I could make English speak a middle voice, I would use it to tell you what little I know about belief, about worship, about impatience, about love." (157)

This book is Lauren F. Winner at her finest.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Level 1 Leadership: Positional Leadership

This is Part 1 of 5 that reflects upon John C. Maxwell's "The 5 Levels of Leadership." I like the book for its clear and concise manner of putting together leadership concepts in an easy to follow framework. Feel free to follow the series using the label here.

Briefly, the five levels of leadership are:

  1. POSITION - People follow you because of your title and positional authority. They have to because you are the head.
  2. PERMISSION - People follow you because they want to. They desire to.
  3. PRODUCTION - People follow you because of what you have done for the organization. It works.
  4. PEOPLE DEVELOPMENT - People follow you because of what you have personally done for them. In other words, they know you care.
  5. PINNACLE - People follow you because of who you are and what you represent. They know you mean it and you are there as part of a higher calling. Conviction and calling.

In Part One, I want to deal with Positional Leadership. One of Maxwell's key ideas is that leadership is a verb. It is constantly changing. It is not a solidified object that appears and forever remains. It is there for a time only. For many, especially for newly appointed leaders, and for people new to the organization, no one knows you. It is the entry level. People look and value you according to your title, and not necessarily because of who you are. All it takes is an appointment. Due to the low level of influence, positional leaders will find it hard to go below the surface to motivate individuals beyond simply boss-subordinate relationship. As a starting point, it is quick and efficient and helps an organization begin their leadership renewal process. 

There are at least four advantages of Level 1 leadership or Positional Leadership. Firstly, it is easy to give Level 1 authority to encourage younger leaders to step up. These younger leaders have the potential but lack the opportunity to demonstrate leadership. By giving them a title or positional authority, it gives them a kickstart to cultivate their potential. This applies as well to those who have not yet served in any position of influence. Secondly, Level 1 positional leadership comes with a certain level of authority that is recognized. Instead of an unknown face, people begin working with Level 1 leaders simply on the basis of that recognized authority. Just like a teacher granting a student the level of "student class representative" in a new class. The third advantage lies in growing that potential. Having a level 1 leadership status does not mean taking the title and admiring ourselves wearing it with a mirror. It needs to be seen as an "invitation to grow." For a Christian, it requires us to raise ourselves up to the next level. Let me suggest three examples in which you are invited to grow, if you are someone new to Level 1 leadership.
  • PRAYER: If you have been previously praying only for yourselves, learn to pray for others.
  • BIBLE READING: If you have only been reading the Bible once a week, challenge yourself to read the Bible every day.
  • SERVICE: If you have been previously waiting for people to call, perhaps, take the initiative to offer your help.
The fourth advantage is that of knowing themselves better as they grow. This is perhaps one of the biggest reasons for anyone in leadership. The point is simple. If leaders do not know themselves, how are they then to lead others to greater knowledge of God and themselves? One excellent practical way to demonstrate knowing oneself is to "lead by example." Have you tested your own perceived limits? Are you praying for God to challenge you to grow to the next level? In the process of challenging yourself, you let yourself become to the spiritual fire of the Holy Spirit, to show you your own potential. Christian leadership is essentially about relying on the Holy Spirit to help us grow more in Jesus each day.


There are dangers in Level 1 leadership as well. While Maxwell has listed 8 dangers, condense them and come up with my own top four dangers. Briefly, there are pride, put-downs. power-hungry, and passive. Firstly, we can allow pride and complacency to distract us to look more at position rather than people. We may think we are already "up there" and stop growing. This is a big temptation in many young leaders. If such level 1 leaders are so position-centric, one may start to wonder whether they have been growing or not. The second danger is more sinister. It is what I call "put down others." Level 1 leaders are tempted to let their position make them big while pushing others down to be small.  This can sometimes be through communications which degrades another person. Maxwell lists 5 examples of such degrading attitudes:

  • "By not having a genuine belief in them.
  • By assuming people can't instead of assuming they can.
  • By assuming people won't rather than believing they will.
  • By seeing their problems more readily than their potential.
  • By viewing them as liabilities instead of assets." (53)
The third danger is that of a power-hungry attitude. Such people focus on control rather than contribution. It is highly top-down. Maxwell observes that in all of his years of leadership, he has yet to find a highly powered leadership structure that leads to a highly motivated, efficient, and high morale workforce.

The fourth danger is that of passivity. Level 1 leaders who do not grow beyond positional power will shrink. That is why Level 1 is easy to get into, but also easy to get out of. It is one thing to have a title. It is yet another to live that title without the need to have a title. 

Here are five tips on how to grow at level 1.
  1. Recognize that titles, positions, labels, are simply superficial labels. We cannot let them define us. We must define them by being the best leader we are called to be.
  2. Progress from contentment-with-position to caring-for-people.
  3. Do not be distressed if one does not have all the answers. Keep learning and trying.
  4. Good leaders will involve other people as much as possible in decision making.
  5. See level 1 not as a liability but as an opportunity to grow to the next level.

Let me close with these words from Jesus.
"I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you." (John 15:15)
How is your quiet time with the Lord? Do you know your Father's business? Have you grown from servants to friends? Are we growing in our personal walk with the Lord? If you have not learned anything from the Bible, how are you going to lead biblically? Most importantly, how is God leading you today?

I pray and hope that your answers will be favourable to the Lord. If not, be encourage that when your heart is willing, the Holy Spirit is even more willing.

I will follow up with Level 2 leadership next week. 


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why We Serve

Exhausted. Burned out. Running on empty.

Yesterday, I shared during my weekly office meeting about the fifth attribute of the fruit of the Spirit: Kindness. What is kindness? One way to understand kindness is to ask about the opposite of kindness. It can mean cruelty. It can also mean unkindness. Being nice is not necessarily kind. Being kind does not mean we have to be nice. One book I have been following is "The Fruitful Wife" by Hayley DiMarco. Though written primarily for wives, it has lots of application and tips for non-wives and men in general too. She writes about kindness as follows:
"Kindness is me giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me." (Hayley DiMarco)
Think about that. Like porcupines living close together, our prickly edges can hurt. It is the willingness to be hurt and hurt over and over again that keeps us together, regardless.

1) Distinguishing Kindness from Niceness

Kindness is about doing whatever we can in order to glorify God. It is in asking how can I exemplify the life of a disciple in my kindness? How do I show my best kindness so that Christ can shine through my acts and deeds? I have read somewhere that there is a difference between boys and girls. When boys fight or quarrel during a game, they let their anger flow easily into fists and punches. They fight openly. After the disciplinary actions, and the reprimands, they continue the rest of the game.

The same is not true of girls. When girls quarrel or fight, the anger does not simply end in fight-kiss-makeup manner. The  emotions can linger on. The hurts continue. The pain persists. The game ends abruptly.

While I do not want to stereotype boys and girls, there is a lesson here to remember. Men and women are made differently. They need different ways in which to resolve any differences. When men or women are hurt, they deal with the pain in very unique ways. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we all agree that we ought to be serving one another in love. What we fail to agree is the extent in which we follow through what we believe. That is why, from time to time, we need to ask ourselves why we serve. More importantly, we need to be reminded about Who we are serving.

Kindness is not niceness. Kindness is in essence another way to demonstrate grace. True authentic believers will let their kindness flow not out of societal expectation of niceness, but Christ-formed grace. See how DiMarco writes about kindness.
"Grace, as we probably all know, is the unmerited favor, divine mercy, or selfless lovingkindness shown by God to his sinful children. It was a kindness shown to us even while we were still enemies of God, dead in our own sinfulness (Eph. 2:1–5). This extreme grace, given with the aim of receiving nothing in return, is the ultimate example of kindness and the model of what it should look like in our lives." (Hayley DiMarco, The Fruitful Wife, Crossway, 2012, 107)
2) The Two Kindness Killers

For DiMarco, the opposite of kindness is "mercilessness." This is also described through the two major "kindness killers." The first is a "sense of justice." Many people have a strong sense of justice and fairness. We can easily see it in our children. It reflects a tit-for-tat culture so prevalent in our society. Unfortunately, the idea of grace goes against anything tit-for-tat. Jesus has said,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." (Matthew 5:38-42)
Impossible? That is why we need the Holy Spirit to help us.

While the Old Testament law has its place, true justice is always fulfilled beautifully with grace. It frees ourselves from being trapped by self-righteousness and a judgemental spirit. It frees us to letting God decide how to deal with those who have hurt us. One reason why a sense of justice is problematic is because it is less about a battle for holiness, but a fight for self-protection. DiMarco writes that our natural tendency toward hurts is either "fight or flight." From Jesus' teaching, instead of fight, we ought to turn the cheek. Instead of flight, we need to follow with a second mile, and not turn away from the need. The key thing is to learn to see the law from the eyes of grace. Kindness is a great way to demonstrate that. Kindness is a profound way to demonstrate love to others, the giving up of any personal right to retaliate. Jesus is trying to teach us to live counter-cultural.

The second "kindness killer" is more sinister. It is a "fear of rejection." It is an emotional tendency to be so self-conscious that we fail to see the opportunity to do good. Imagine if Jesus has this fear of rejection in the first place. He will not have walked into the trap set by Judas Iscariot. He will run away and hide in a cave for safety. No. Jesus prays. He asks to do God's will rather than to obey any human tendencies. Grace comes through in his kindness to people in words and in works.

"Mercy is rooted in kindness, because mercy, like grace, is given not on the merit of the one who messed up but on the unearned favor of the God who forgives." (Hayley Dimarco, The Fruitful Wife, p112)
Respond to any fear of rejection by accepting one another, just as God in Christ, accepted us.

3) Why We Serve?

This article has touched on the fruit of kindness as a reason to serve one another. When we serve one another, getting hurt or hurting others becomes a common occurrence. If I can prescribe one cure for not ever getting hurt at all, it is this: DO NOT SERVE.

If we are fearful of rejection, do not serve.

If we are always on a lookout for justice, do not serve.

If we are always calculating how much we can gain, do not serve.

If we are serving out of people's wishes, do not serve.

If you want to be servants of the Church, seek not a reason why you need to serve. For every reason you can think of in serving, there is always a counter-reason why NOT to serve.

If you want to be servants of the Church, seek not a method about how you serve. For every good method you can think of, there is always a corresponding method that is BETTER than how you are serving.

Instead, if you want to serve, let it flow out of your love for one Person. Let not the "why" or the "how" determine your reason for service. Let your motivation and convictions for serving be your pursuit of that Person of Jesus Christ. The 'why' reason can provide you answers. The 'how' reason can give you methods and strategies. For us as a Church, the WHO trumps the 'why' and the 'how.'

Let me close with the following from Thomas Kelly's classic book on devotion.

"Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is in our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. It is a Light Within which illumines the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories upon the face of men. It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it. It is the Shekinah of the soul, the Presence in the midst. Here is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And He is within us all." (Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, HarperSanFrancisco, 1992, p3)

Christ is within us. Let us share His glory in our life, through our service.

Why do we serve? Let it be because of this one Person Jesus. Let it be because we want to honour the Son of God. Let it be because service is a privilege.

The moment we move our eyes away from this Person, toward seeking other kinds of reasons, for self-fulfilment, or obligations, we will become distracted. Serve not because you are asked to, or because you have to. Serve because you love to. More importantly, serve so that the Christ that is in you, will be made known to all in your service, in your works, and in your kindness.

Remember the parable about the man who found a great pearl in the land? Let them remind us all over again, how much we love that great pearl in Jesus Christ.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it." (Matthew 13:44-46)

For those of us who are serving, we need to be reminded from time to time. How valuable is the pearl that you have found? Who is that pearl in your life? May your desire to serve illustrate that very finding.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Midweek Meditation: Seeking God

As we approach the middle of the week, I invite you to meditate upon this prayer of Thomas Merton. It is a prayer to help us look away from our self-seeking inclinations, and to desire God more and more. Like John's request, may I be less and less, so that God be more and more, in my mind, in my heart, in my soul, and in my strength.

(Photo Credit:

"My God, I give up my attachment to peace, the delight
and sweetness of contemplation of Your love and Your Presence.

I give myself to You to love Your will and Your honor alone.

I know that, if You want me to renounce the manner of my desiring You,
it is only in order that I may possess You surely
and come to union with You.

I will try from now on, with Your grace,
to make no more fuss about 'being a contemplative,'
about acquiring that perfection for myself.

Instead I will seek only You,
not contemplation and not perfection,
but You alone.

Then maybe I will be able to do the simple things
that You would have me do,
and do them well,
with a perfect and pure intention in all peace and silence and obscurity,
concealed even from my own self,
and safe from my poisonous self-esteem."

(Thomas Merton, Dialogues with Silence, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001, p39)
Amen. conrade

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Season of Marriage

Last Sunday, I preached on Proverbs 19:13-14 on the topic, "A Season of Marriage." It is a seven-part sermon series dealing with the Seasons of Life. From cradle to grave, from childhood to old age, the purpose of the seven meditations is to help congregants connect their personal stories with some reflections on the wisdom of Proverbs. In my congregation, there is a mixture of adults both young and old in a 40/60 ratio. In other words, there are more members of the congregation that are above 40 years of age. Key to my sermon is the question: "How is it possible for two imperfect persons to work toward a perfect relationship?"

The clues in answering this question can be gleaned through four observations of Proverbs 19:13-14.

"Houses and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the Lord." (Proverbs 19:13-14)

Firstly, the Proverb seems to indicate that the second part is "better than" the first part. Just like wisdom is better than silver or gold (Prov 3:14); better than jewels (Prov 8:11); and love with a little being better than hatred with plenty (Prov 15:17), so a prudent wife is better than material goods. This has implications for priority.

Secondly, we see a prudent wife as a gift from God while the houses and wealth are inheritance from earthly parents. The former can be purchased but not the latter. If we can be happy over inheritance, how much more should we be full of gratitude to God over a prudent spouse? This has implications for our level of gratitude over the more important things in life. Have we used our time to discover our spouses' love maps as a way to show our gratitude to God? Have we upped our efforts to love our spouses?

Thirdly, the Hebrew word for prudence is "sakal" which is also understood as understanding, or wisdom. In contrast, another Hebrew word "arum" denotes craftiness, cleverness and wit. Inner selves and inner wisdom can only be from God, and cultivated from inside out. Such spiritual surgery is not something we can easily obtain. The implication is that this ought to humble us. Growing the inner selves require both quality and quantity. Just like Israel's early years. In Deuteronomy 24:5, the nation was reminded about the importance of a new husband spending 365 days in the first year of marriage, to make his wife happy. This is a way in which one cultivates prudence in the wife, through the love of a husband.

Fourthly, houses and wealth are external things. A prudent wife is both external and internal. I pose the point about comparing and contrasting verses 13 and 14. Verse 13 speaks about a quarrelsome wife, while verse 14 highlights a prudent wife. Do we want to move from 13 to 14, or do we prefer 14 to 13? While most people will opt for the seemingly obvious, the subtle point I try to indicate is our actions often speak against what we personally believe. In other words, if we feel that our spouses are more important than our work, why then are some spending more time and resources at work than with their spouses?

So, how can two imperfect persons work toward a perfect relationship? We need the Lord. We need God to help us see perfection amid our imperfections. This means we recognize firstly the more important place our spouses need to occupy in our daily lives. This means we maintain an attitude of gratitude always, that our spouse is a gift from God. This means that we cultivate the prudence in each other, letting God help us build inner wisdom. This also means that we continue to improve our perspectives to move:

  1. From raw stones to JEWELS;
  2. From worldliness or happiness to HOLINESS
  3. From marital satisfaction to SPIRITUAL FULFILMENT
  4. From Ecstasy to INTIMACY.

We need to learn to be other-centered, to be sacrificial, to listen deeply, to love willingly, JUST LIKE JESUS. I end with the exhortation for people to begin slowly, continue steadily, and be encouraged surely. Above all, love sacrificially, just like Christ. As usual, time got the better of me. I had wanted to end with some call to honour our promises to one another. I provide two wonderful quotes on what it means to honour one another by keeping to our promises.

"Without being bound to the fulfilment of our promises, we would never be able to keep our identities. We would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each person's lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocations." (Hannah Ar Endt, Historian)

My personal favourite is this.

"I didn't marry you because you were perfect. I didn't even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise. That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage. And when our children were growing up, it wasn't a house that protected them; and it wasn't our love that protected them - it was that promise." (Thornton Wilder, The Skin of Our Teeth, New York, NY: Samuel French, 1972, p84)


Monday, August 13, 2012

BookPastor >> "The Sacredness of Questioning Everything" (David Dark)

TITLE: The Sacredness of Questioning Everything
AUTHOR: David Dark
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009, (272 pages).

This is a book that attempts to use questions to distill wisdom out of common wisdom, truths out of perceived convictions, and to re-examine our most commonly held assumptions. That we may seek out greater understanding and the nuances of it all. Learning to question everything is according to Dark, a sacred exercise. Sacred because questions do not undermine God, for God is much bigger than questions. Instead, through reverent asking and probing, one becomes more fascinated with truths that otherwise remain hidden under the lock and key of bigotry and closed minded positions. The author is quite comprehensive about his philosophy. He makes a case against the false god, the "Uncle Ben" who punishes anyone daring to question Him. Learning to ask questions of God is a form of deliverance because, "it begins with people who love questions, people who live with questions and by questions, people who feel a deep joy when good questions are asked." Some of the points he questions provide fodder for much conversation and in depth discussion. Sacred questioning according to Dark is likened to worship.

"The summons to sacred questioning - is a call to be true and to let the chips fall where they may. This call to worship is deeper than the call to sign off on a checklist of particular tenets of beliefs. It is also more difficult." (19)

Dark questions religion, especially those that claim to have ready answers, cures, answered prayers, and all kinds of affirmative steps to faith. He uses music and literature to appreciate the needs of humanity spoken through popular culture. For any religion to have greater meaning, it needs more deepening through questions. He questions those who are easily offended when their central tenets of belief are questioned. In a world that finds security in certainties, such questioning of these humanly held beliefs tend to expose their inner securities rather than openness to truth. He questions the way we let our passions flow, which more often than not, exhibit self-seeking motivations, lust and worldly perversions. Instead, he proposes any passion to be checked periodically so that we can be free from tunnel vision that we dig ourselves into. Dark even questions our tendency to rebuke media, and those who try to control media. "Real news, I believe, is whatever drives us to think again." Listen to these wise words about media.

"To maintain some grip on reality, we have to constantly remind ourselves that the news is never what happened. It's a story about what happened, and it is only rarely worthy of it's own advertising. News product, usually quick and dependably shallow, will usually be the opposite of 'in-depth coverage.' We know this is how it works. What are we left with?" (118)

He questions language, especially the way it promotes reductionism. Sometimes, the language we use tend to "reduce, degrade, and devalue human beings." Instead, one needs to allow questioning that "unsettles our assumptions, haunts our conscience, and reorients our attention by addressing us with a summons to love." (138)

I like the way he uses the question about agnostism when questioning the interpretations of ideas. When students were asked to define the word agnostic, instead of the commonly understood refusal to belief, it is actually the lack of knowing what to believe. Even governments are not spared in Dark's book. Governments who often issue ultimatums or instructions in the name of God or person, or policy, are actually getting people to serve their own cause rather than the cause they claim to fight for. Finally, Dark touches on eschatology, which to him is simply what "we have in mind" when thinking about the future end. Everyone has their own eschatologies. The economic policies, political campaigns, advertisements, even evangelicalism. Dark holds out an "emerging eschatology" that is more about sharing earth's resources rather than squandering them, ordering our economies through the lens of justice for all, and learning to build a sustainable future for all. Through questioning the norms, one learns to restore true awareness, humble the proud, be more self aware, and resist pet answers that seldom reflect truth.

"The questions make new worlds possible. Like well-told jokes, they let the air in. We get to put questions to each other and to the world we too often settle for. Questions make a way where we ofen fear there is no way in our families, our neighbourhoods, and in our complicated relationships with people around the world affected by our consumption, our selling, and our voting. There are better ways of being in the world that await us by way of the questions we have yet to ask. It is by questions that we are born again and again." (243)

My Thoughts

It is hard not to like this book. It is also hard to teach this book in a world so caught up with wanting to find answers instead of getting more probing questions. That is why this book is difficult to read, and more difficult to share with others. Having said that, it is an important device to question our own beliefs so that we can learn and understand the nuances of faith. Learning to ask questions is not doubting. It is finding greater authenticity in what we believe. It is shedding light on why we believe. It is demonstrating conviction in how we believe. This book is most effective when used as a paradigm against people who seem so cocksure in their approach to faith. Better still, it humbles the proud, and gives hope to the humble. That said, it is important to note the attitude we bring when we ask questions. How questions are asked is equally important, if not more crucial to the whole learning process.

The threat to our spirituality is not when we ask questions, but when we fail to ask the appropriate questions. Failure to ask questions only goes to create the seeds of doubt. Only when we learn to question our beliefs, we become ready to learn more. We are free from the tyranny of self-imposed bigotry, and free to see God for who He is, and not for who we 'want' Him to be. Be not afraid of asking questions.  Be humble when answering questions. Be on your guard when you face situations where people shirk, condemn, or dismiss your questions outright. There is nothing to hide, especially from people who are genuinely interested to know the truth, for the truth will set all free. 

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


Friday, August 10, 2012

Five Essentials for Lifelong Intimacy

This weekend, I will be preaching on marriage. As I reflect on the Deuteronomy 24:5, the verse which specifically says that the newly married man, needs to take a year off from military or other duties, so that he can spend uninterrupted time with his new bride. Such a command may seem weird to modern eyes. Who practices that nowadays? Yet, there is wisdom in doing so.
"If a man has recently married, he must not be sent to war or have any other duty laid on him. For one year he is to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married." (Deuteronomy 24:5)
How can we understand this? The clue is in the first few verses of chapter 24.
"If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance." (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)
Goodness gracious! It seems like divorce is not exactly a modern phenomenon. It seems rampant in Old Testament times. It appears that people are not spending enough time together, leading to all kinds of marital problems. The ease of divorce is not the issue. It is the ease of "displeasing" one another, and the ease of remarriage that appears to be the core problem. Marriage is not about a simple signing of the certificate. It is much more. A failure in the home eats at the crux of society. A stable home leads to a stable society. A stable society grows when homes are strong. For Israel to be strong, the family unit must be strong. Thus, verse 4 is a wise instruction for couples to grow closer in intimacy, with the man initiating the act of intimacy and love, and the state doing its part to encourage bonding. The question is, what can a man do for one year with his wife? In our modern world, we cannot imagine a world without social media. No Facebook or Twitter. No emails or Internet connections. No movies or automobile joyrides. Life will certainly be boring and meaningless then! Right? Not necessary.

James Dobson, founder of the world famous evangelical organization, Focus on the Family, has been in the forefront of education and teaching all things relationship, especially the home. In one of his books, "Five Essentials for Lifelong Intimacy," he calls intimacy as "the mystical bond of friendship, understanding, and commitment that almost defies explanation" (9). He distills his wealth of knowledge and learning into five essential principles. These principles are apparently chosen from a panel of "six hundred marriage experts."

1) A Christ-Centered Home

The rationale is clear. If God created us and the marriage institution, should we not listen and follow His design? It is a call to put Christ first and always in the relationship. It means persistent prayer, the special place of common prayer between couples with God. There is a need for BOTH husband and wife to be intimate with Jesus, and to push each other to spend time with God.

2) A Lifelong Commitment

Commitment in marriage is vital. Lifelong commitment is absolutely essential. The smoothening of rough edges, the honing of each other's strengths and weaknesses, the adaptation to one another's idiosyncrasies takes time. It is during this crucial time that foundations are built. Lifelong commitment is needed to press on through times of pain. It is also needed to work through emotions. More importantly, one needs to trust less of one's emotions, and more of God's patience. Supplement this with a strong dosage of mini-celebrations of meaningful togetherness. There is no need to have anything beyond the words "I Love you." One thing I have learned is that in a marriage, we learn to deny ourselves, and to give the benefit of the doubt to our spouses. It is like giving a blank cheque that says: "I (own name) love you (your spouse's name) even though _______" and lets our spouses fill in the blank at any time. Then commit yourself to honour that cheque.

Tip:  Regularly re-affirm each other. Learn from other couples you respect about commitment. Recall your wedding vows.

3) A Deep and Abiding Trust

Trust is an antidote against fear and insecurity. One builds trust with honest sharing and gracious words. Do not hurt or embarrass our spouses, especially in public. Build trust with actions, to regularly show the spouse how much you trust him/her. Protect the marriage by building hedges against all kinds of temptations, even small ones. Learn to trust God, and in the process, ask God to help us trust each other.

Tip: Be convicted against adultery. Build the level of comfort between husband and wife through communications and humble behaviour toward each other.

4) A Willingness to Communicate

I remember my uncle telling me that the biggest factor for marital problems is the lack of communications. It is either we miscommunicate or do not communicate enough. Moreover, couples have varying communication levels. It is important that during the early years of marriage, one learns the "love language" as well as one's own style. A willingness to communicate also imply the willingness to adapt one's communication to suit the other. Through communications, one learns to share most intimate details of oneself. Let the goal be to see our spouses also as our best friends. Part of communication is also in recognizing hard walls that prevent further progression along any one path. These are called "unresolvables." Here, both parties need to agree on how best to deal with it, whether to delay it, or try a different approach. Even talking about it is a good step toward more open communications. Not having a good result does not mean one cannot carry on a good conversation.

Tip: Think about compromising as a way to increase greater communications. What about learning of ways to improve one's level of communications?

5) An Understanding of Love

Love is one of the most used words in our modern society. It is also widely abused and misunderstood. It contains romance. It has elements of intimacy as described in the biblical Songs of Solomon. There is a "thrill" of pursuing as well as being pursued. The wife can love the husband by being sensitive to him during his deepest despair. A story was told of EV who invested in a service station and his business failed miserably. Instead of saying "I told you so," the wife wisely looked at the positive side, commended the husband's honesty and personality, and moved on together as a couple. Instead of further demoralizing the husband, she became a huge encouragement. According to researcher, Desmond Morris, intimacy needs to proceed slowly. There is no quick fix, only slow growth.

"No matter how you define and express romance - through flowers, love notes, an evening in the bedroom, or all of the above - it is a vital ingredient for achieving genuine and lasting intimacy in your marriage. If you are careful to nurture and protect the flame of romance in our relationship, you'l enjoy its warmth for a lifetime." (James Dobson, Five Essentials for Lifelong Intimacy, Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2005, 100-101)

So what do couples need to do in their early years of marriage? What can a newly married couple do? Build on the five essentials of intimacy. If such essentials are worked upon, and prevent even the slightest chance of any divorce situations, why not?

Let me try to use the five Cs to help us remember the five essentials.
  1. Christ-Centered Home
  2. Commitment toward One Another
  3. Common trust
  4. Communications
  5. Caring to Love


Thursday, August 09, 2012

Learning from Dr Bruce Waltke

Dr Waltke during Q&A time
Last weekend was a real treat. For four sessions over three days (3-5 August 2012), my Church people sat under the very wise and experienced Bible teacher, Dr Bruce Waltke, currently a faculty member at Knox Theological Seminary. At 82 years of age, he continues to travel across the nation giving lectures, seminars, and talks to Churches and various Christian organizations. We were the beneficiaries of his travel last week. Giving a total of four sessions, Dr Waltke helps us with an insightful introduction to all 34 chapters of the book of Deuteronomy. Calling it the "most important book in the Old Testament," Waltke even goes to put on record his firm belief that "I'm convinced that Jesus memorized the book of Deuteronomy." It is really hard not to be swayed by Waltke's conviction. Especially when this man of God has spent a large part of his life, just studying the Bible, and researching the many ancient contexts. A brilliant Bible teacher and expositor, he patiently seeds the Word of God with humble but passionate love. With a pastoral heart, he affirms the faith without dissing people who are honestly puzzled with the Old Testament. With his personal stories, he shows us a part of him that many in the public do not get to see.

We feel so privileged. Here are some of the pointers I take home.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Honour Your Competitors

Yesterday was a mixture of emotions. As I watched the Canadian Women's Soccer Team lose 3-4 to Team USA, I felt sad to see the brave ladies crumble down crestfallen, heartbroken. After an amazing heartwinning performance, at the end of it all, they lost. Even after leading their opponents thrice, in the final seconds of extra time, they lost to an unfortunate goal. Having dominated the game at many angles, I can understand how many Canadians felt cheated by the questionable refereeing decisions that went against the Canadians. A heartwinning performance did not lead to a gracious response. Instead, I saw how the Canadian stars move from disappointment to anger at others. Not only have the players failed to lose graciously, they have missed out the opportunity to be role models for the rest of us, by making a positive gesture to honour their worthy opponents.

On how the USA came back three times, why blame the referee's decisions if your defense could have been better? On the delay of call infringement, why criticize the decisions that went against you when you very own goalkeeper could have remembered the rules of the tournament? Hey, you all are world class players, and world class players are expected to know the rules of the game by heart. Right? True champions never blame others. True champions win gracefully, or lose graciously. For all the positive things that the Canadian soccer team has done, I feel that they have let themselves down by being critical of the referee's decisions. What makes me sad is that they have failed to give credit where credit is due. The Americans stormed back not once by thrice. They held on for a solid 120 minutes and never gave up on seeking the winning goal. Wake up. Losing to a team that is ranked #1 in the world is no shame at all.

I rooted for Canada to win. I wanted them to win. I cheered them on. Honestly, I thought the game belonged to them. Until they allowed their emotions to get the better of them on the pitch, and outside the pitch. After the final whistle, even when the players felt they have been robbed, I think they had missed out a golden opportunity to honour their competitors.

Sports can bring out the best of the players. It can also bring out the worst. That is why it is important to remember what sportsmanship is all about. The founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin famously said:

"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

Sadly, this is largely missing yesterday from the Canadian team.

A) The Ugly American

Having said that about the Canadian team, I think some of the American media, reporters, and athletes are no angels either. Take the much decorated swimmer, Michael Phelps for example. In an article, "Move Over, Michael Phelps. Missy Franklin Is Our New Sweetheart," Lesley Sebek Miller criticizes Phelps for his lack of charity after losing his race to his rival, Ryan Lochte in the 400m IM swimming race. Likewise, when the Chinese sensation, Ye Shiwen happened to swim one length at a faster time than Lochte, instead of honouring the achievement, they cried foul. The media and some in the American contingent begin to suspect doping on the part of Ye. Even after Ye had been cleared of any doping charges, there was no apology. No attempt to give credit. No desire to demonstrate sportsmanship. The ugly American image had tarnished not only the spirit of the Olympics, but the reputation of American teams.

Let me maintain that these individuals are the exceptions. There are good and gracious American athletes too. Missy Franklin is one of them.

B) Our Worthy Opponents

I wrote previously that there is no point in winning when one does not have a winning mentality. The eight persons disqualified from the women's doubles badminton events, were found guilty of playing to lose in order to jostle for a more favourable pairings in the later parts of the competition. The Badminton World Federation (BWF) took the initiative to disqualify them after the unsportsmanlike behaviour.

Another event that has caught my attention is the men's Badminton singles event. After Malaysia's Lee lost the game 2-1, many people were retweeting the ESPN commentator's words that compares the two men.
"Lee Chong Wei is such a great guy, but Lin Dan is a bit arrogant. Skills win you medals, but attitude wins hearts."
While I like the comment, I feel that it is a little unfair to call Lin Dan "a bit arrogant." Every one of us have our own way of celebrating our wins. How we do it, is purely an emotional matter. We cannot judge a person simply on the basis of one moment. What is wrong to celebrate? Lin Dan deserves to celebrate. Who are we to decide how he celebrates? For that matter, remember that while Lin Dan and Lee are huge rivals on the badminton courts, they are friends outside. My point, give credit to where credit is due. Both men have won. Lin Dan has won gold. Lee Chong Wei has won silver. Together, they have won respect for the game of Badminton. Lin Dan has won honours for his country. Chong Wei has won hearts and respect for Malaysia.

Fortunately, the men's singles event has won back some respect for the competition. In an epic final, Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei battled China's Lin Dan point for point for a solid 79 minutes in a three set gold medal game. Both players gave their all. Both players sweat it out. Both players brought the best out of each other. When the brave Malaysian lost by 2 points, he broke down and cried, bringing the whole country of Malaysia crying with him. The difference is this: those were tears of joy. Many Malaysians felt that even though Chong Wei did not win gold, he won the hearts of all Malaysians. The tribute here says it all.

Fan Club of Lee Chong Wei

That is not all. The fan club of China's Lin Dan gives this brilliantly written response here.

Translated, it reads:

"Thank you very much, Lee Chong Wei, Thank you for being such a noble and worthy opponent, and thank you for 10 years of company - without Lee Chong Wei's worthiness, there will not be any Lin Dan's worthiness; without Lee Chong Wei's persistence and perseverance, there will not be any progression for Lin Dan. Lee Chong Wei missed his first Gold Medal, but he didn't fail. We felt for his cries. [SHARED/RT] When we cheer for Lin Dan's victory, please also remember Lee Chong Wei. You both are the best."

That is very well put.

At the end, the spirit of the Olympics is really not about winning or losing. It is in putting in a winning mentality that inspires not only fellow sportsmen and sportswomen, but to show the rest of the world that anything is possible. Through guts, determination, and sportsmanship, we can break world records. The only way that we can do it is when we have good solid competitors.

  • Who wants to watch a one-sided competition?
  • Who wants to see one country sweeping all the medals?
  • Who wants to see competitors hardly having to sweat it out in order to win?
The fact is this. Without competition, one will not be pushed to excel or to do better. Without worthy opponents, one cannot break world records or Olympic records. Without honouring our competitors, any win will be an embarrassment not just to the gold medalists but to the sport. 

May the Canadian womens' soccer team learn to accept defeat graciously. It is time to move on to a heartwinning performance again. Treat the bronze medal game as a championship game. For Badminton, may there be a time to see another epic badminton game again between Lin Dan and Chong Wei. The best is yet to be, as the best competition can only come from worthy opponents.

Honour your competitors, now. Give credit where credit is due. Acknowledge that you are not your best until you are pushed to do your best. Your winning is very much not a self-designed experiment.You never know when you need them to encourage you next time. World class competition needs not only world class quality and skills. It requires world class competitors. Honour your competitors, for when you honour them, every medal looks like gold. It is high time that we remind one another that the culture of "Winning is Everything" is dead wrong. Winning gracefully and losing graciously together is everything.


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