Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why No Revival?

We all want to grow. We like to see our Church be vibrant. We enjoy being among people who are energetic, passionate, and happy. Unfortunately, a vibrant, passionate, happy Church is not as common as we have hoped. Why? Erwin Lutzer presents this as one reason:

"To be candid: I believe genuine reconciliation to be the stuff of revival; because once our souls are unclogged of bitterness and hurt, the Spirit of God has freedom to move and heal. The body of Christ today includes countless bitter, hurting, and wounded people - bound by the power of a personal offense. Yet where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty - and liberty brings revival." (Erwin Lutzer, When You've Been Wronged, Chicago: IL: Moody Publishers, 2007, 13)

Remember the words of Jesus. Falsehood binds. Truth frees. Falsehood deceives toward wrong ways. Truth receives the right way. Falsehood pretends. Truth faces reality.

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."  (John 8:34-36)

Do you want to be in a Church that is enslaved by sinful behaviour, or liberated by God's grace? May we seek the latter, to give of our selves. Let go of any arrogance. Seek forgiveness by first learning to forgive one another.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Evangelism Reminders

At the end of my evangelism talk today, I showed this video as a form of encouragement for the whole Church to be more active in the work of an evangelist. Not everyone is given a title of an 'evangelist' but all of us are called to do the work of an evangelist.

"But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry." (2 Tim 4:5)

You can also click on the link here if you do not see any embedded video above.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Reaching the Young Indirectly

It is a common refrain to hear people all over the church about how this generation's young is being lost to the world. They hear it from other 'experts.' They talk about the challenging 'new' era while comparing with the 'good' old days. They are persuaded by statistics that purport to prove that the younger generation are less spiritual and more worldly, less keen on church and more keen on hanging out with their friends. I know of some young people who stay away from Church simply because they perceive Church as basically a gathering of a bunch of hypocrites.

A) The Direct Approach - ROI

I have been in Church long enough to see how Church people solve any problem. Take a typical Church with a dwindling youth population. First, they identify the problems.
  • Our younger folks are not coming to Church anymore.
  • Some find church boring. 
  • Some believe that church is full of hypocrites.
  • Others do not feel the way their parents feel about faith matters.
  • Others say their friends do not go to church, so why should they?
  • Why should anyone go to Church? Church doesn't do anything for me!
Second, they propose some solutions.
  • Hire a youth worker or pastor.
  • Build a gymnasium for them to hang out with friends
  • Have a more 'contemporary' church service
  • Make Church a more exciting place to be in
  • Give them free food, fun, and games!
  • Pray for them.
Third, they implement their solutions. I look at some churches I know and the results are depressing. One Church I know spent lots of time and money building a games room, complete with XBox, pool table, sports equipment, and stuff that the young used to do. After a novel first month, the young starts to complain: "Boring!"

Another Church has got a dynamic youth worker, who reaches very well to the young. As the young meets, they bring their friends. The numbers quadripled within a few months. Things look good. Until the youth worker leaves. Yet, another church works hard to keep their young. Unfortunately, the best efforts do not result in any return. After a while, they shut down the youth department.

In business circles, people use the term ROI to measure their returns on investment. By constant monitoring of this figure, they will be able to report back to their shareholders, employees, and the public the performance of the business. A high ROI means a positive result, a high efficiency to the use of funds that lead to a high yield to the investment. Unfortunately, Church work, especially youth work cannot be measured with such ROI statistics. I have served Sunday School long enough to realize that a 7-year-old kid winning a Bible quiz is no guarantee he will remain in his faith. Other more important factors figure. I call the direct approach the identify-attack-conquer approach. It is direct. It is proactive. It is a short-term effort with a short-term result. In fact, some statistics have shown that 80% of the youths who say they intend to stick to their faith, end up abandoning their faith.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday Reflection 2012

Today is Day 1 of Lent. Also known as Ash Wednesday, it marks the remembrance of Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. A Regent alum has posted her reflection from Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun who has written many profound articles on spirituality. I find her thoughts simple and helpful. It goes to the very essence of being human.

I have always wondered why people call this day 'Ash Wednesday.' Two years ago, I reflected on this day with the focus on 'Giving Up.' This year, I want to focus on the word 'ash.' After Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, The LORD God pronounced this on Adam:
"By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." (Gen 3:19)
It is a plain pronouncement that no matter what Adam does, death represents his end state. Adam and Eve have become mortal beings. One fact of life is this: We all age. We all grow old. Our bodies will diminish and perish eventually. It is part of becoming ash. I want to provide three short reflections on the symbolism of ash: Aging, Spirituality, Holiness.

A) Aging
Henri Frederic Amiel, a 19th Century Swiss philosopher writes about the process of growing old.

"To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living."

Many of us know how to accumulate things, qualifications,  work experiences, and all kinds of worldly ribbons of achievement. When we come to a point in which we are no longer fast enough, strong enough, or agile enough, we become lost. We get depressed. We detest life. The fact is this. Those of us who 'retire' at an old age, why should we simply stop living simply because of the dreaded word, 'retire?' Learn to see it as 're-tire,' like changing our vehicle's tires to Winter tires when Winter arrives, normal tires for Summer, and All-Season tires if we are living in places where the weather does not change drastically over the year? Aging is not about being boxed into a stereotype. Aging is about seeing God renewing our spirits new every morning, every day, and at every age. Reflect upon on own age. Do not despise the number of wrinkles, or to lament the good old years. Instead, knowing that we will eventually return to dust does not mean we stop living altogether. I like how Joan Chittister writes about adjustment to aging.

"A blessing of these years is being able to live so open-heartedly, and to adjust so well, that others can look to us and see what being old can bring in terms of life, of holiness, of goodness to make the world new again." (Joan Chittister, The Gift of Years, New York, NY: Bluebridge, 2008, 65)
Let this Ash Wednesday be a time to pray for those of us who feel the weight of aging. Pray for those who are fearing the coming of the ash destiny. Nearing ash ourselves does not mean to stop living. It simply means we live differently.

B) Spirituality

One of my friends once said of the great paradox. Spiritual things and physical things often operate in a strange paradox. For example, the world thinks that more is better. The spiritual person believes that less is more. The world lives as if money can buy anything. The spiritual man understands that money cannot buy everything. All the world's medical know-how seeks to extend longevity at great costs. The spiritual person knows when it is time to live, and when it is time to go.  The world holds on to life with a clenched fist. The spiritual man lives with open hands that freely receive, and also freely give.

The great spiritual mystic, Sadhu Sundar Singh tells of this natural encounter with deep spiritual understanding. One day, he happens to chance upon a nest of young chicks. Even though they have yet to open their eyes, each time the mother bird flutters near, they will chirp excitedly. Even though they have not know whether there is good food or not, their mouths automatically open in expectation of being fed. Maybe it is a prey coming to eat them up. Maybe it is some bad person trying to feed them poison. Yet, the natural instinct of such birds is to exercise faith to be given what they need.

Sometimes, as Christians, we live so much in this world that we have forgotten how to live as spiritual beings. We are so used to worldly wisdom that we find it hard to understand spiritual wisdom. Perhaps, as we learn to refrain, to resist more of the world, we can be more discerning of the things of the Spirit.

C) Holiness

We do not operate on the basis of an aimless life. Whatever we do, it is better to have some sense of direction. On Ash Wednesday, we do not fast for the sake of fasting. Neither do we restrict ourselves from things for the sake of restriction. We can become worldly even under the guise of practicing spirituality. Our aim must be holiness of heart, mind, and soul. The operative word is 'purity.' The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard words are:

"Purity of heart is to will one thing."

Perhaps, this is the biggest reason for Lent. It is not the fasting or the abstinence of things. It is the focus of one's soul, just like the way an archer aims his arrow at the target. Whether it is the blowing of the winds, the sounds of background noises, the eagle in the sky, the archer musters up all his strength and concentration to do one thing: Hit the target.

Let holiness be our aim.

So this is it. For Ash Wednesday. Age beautifully with a renewed sense of energy. Practice spirituality, not as the world teaches, but the way Jesus guides us. Maintain our pursuit of holiness as our one goal for Lent.

Finally, returning to the ash symbolism, we know that we will become dust and ash one day. We know that we will eventually die. If that is the case, before that happens, live well. Live with energy. Live purposefully. May we be the best ash that we can be.

"A blessing of these years is to have the time to complete in ourselves what has been neglected all these years, so that the legacy we leave to others is equal to the full potential within us." (Joan Chittister)


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Suggestions for Lent 2012

Written by: Conrade Yap

Lent starts tomorrow. Traditionally known as Ash Wednesday, the day ushers in a 40 day observance of Lent. 'Lent' means 40th in Latin. Easter Sunday marks the end of the 40 days journey, which reminds all disciples of Christ about Jesus' journey to the Cross.

(Picture Credit: efl-churches.org)
When I was in Bible school, I managed to catch a glimpse of what some of my fellow students were doing. Some refrained from certain foods like coffee, chocolates, or meat. Others abstained from particular activities. The overriding theme was basically the need to stop, to reflect, to remember, and to experience a little of what Jesus was going through during his time before the crucifixion on Good Friday, the death during the darks days prior to the culmination of Resurrection Sunday. Lent is perhaps one of the most important periods of the Christian calendar.

Not everyone of us are used to a full fast. I find myself struggling to observe a complete fast from coffee. I know it is possible, but I want to avoid becoming overly legalistic about it. That said, the majority of the people I know will tend to prefer a more moderate approach: Partial fast. It is to this group of people that I will be writing for this Lent 2012.

Readers are welcome to adopt one or more of the following seven options. The more adventurous are welcome to practice all. It will be based on a particular activity or food to fast on a particular day of the week.

1) Monday - Fast from Complaining the Monday blues

It is common to hear people complaining about their Monday blues. For some, Mondays can be the most depressing days of the week. After a long weekend, our emotional work engines are cold. The tendency to complain tends to be hot. Perhaps, fast from complaining is a good way to remember that Jesus obeys God's will without complaining. Resist saying anything negative about work. Avoid any tendency to complain. Instead, bite your lip. Hold your tongue. Direct your focus to God and pray. Do that every Monday. One cannot avoid the Monday blues, but one can certainly avoid making it worse. 

2) Tuesday - Tangible Resistance

What are the things that we 'normally' do? Do we watch TV? Do we spend lavishly on things we do not really need? Do we buy things at all? Perhaps, on Tuesday, resist the tangible attractions of materialism. Keep your credit cards at home so that you do not spend anything. Resist materialism. Resist consumerism. In resisting all of these tangible stuff, perhaps, we learn to allocate what we spend on ourselves, and put them in a tangible fund for someone more needy? 

3) Wednesday - Entertainment Fast by moving from Worldly to Worship

We are in the world but not of the world. Instead of spending our usual time in worldly entertainment like TV, Internet surfing, or movies, consider turning our minds and hearts toward worship. Memorize a Scripture verse. Sing a hymn. Meditate on a spiritual writing. As we move away from worldliness, we point ourselves toward anything to encourage worship. We can pray. We can sing. We can worship.

4) Thursday - Fast for Lunch and Give toward Theological Education

I write this with some conviction. Yesterday I received a call from my alma mater about considering a donation to theological education. I promised to consider. Thinking about it, why not allocate a day in which I can devote my lunch money to theological education? If skipping one lunch can enable a needy student to study theology more, why not?

5) Friday - Friendly Gesture

Fasting is not to be understood merely as self-limiting. It can be shared through giving and sharing. Make Fridays a day to perhaps do a kind friendly deed. Call up a friend. Encourage him/her. Do a kind, friendly deed. Buy someone lunch. Show kindness and be a spiritual friend if you can. Fridays are great days to do these acts of kindness. By giving we are receiving too: the privilege of giving joy.

6) Saturday - Fast from Social Media like Facebook, Twitter, or Blogging.

Social media is becoming the main staple of communications nowadays. I know of people who do not know what to do without Facebook. In fact, they are on social networks almost a couple of times every hour. Gone are the days in which we can have an uninterrupted time over a meal.  By fasting from social media at least once a week, we can avoid becoming addicted to social media. At the same time, we remind ourselves that fasting is in essence a way to untie ourselves from worldly things that entangle us. Resist the urge to connect to social networks once a day. Make Saturday that day.

7) Sunday - Keeping Sabbath

I believe that it is important to keep the Sabbath, or to observe a Sabbatical rhythm once a week. A rabbi once said: "It is not the Jews that kept the Sabbath. It is the Sabbath that kept the Jews." Now, Sundays are strictly speaking not a 'Christian Sabbath.' True Sabbath calls us to restrain from normal work. What I am advocating is a day in which we can do something different. For example, six days we work. Let us then rest one day. In our busy world, it is easy to bring work home for the weekend. Some of us work overtime. Perhaps, try to have a day in which we can free ourselves from the tyranny of work and the busyness of life. Slow down. Stop to admire the gardens. Smell the flowers. 

Here they are. Seven ideas for seven days for the Lenten period. You are welcome to practice any of them, some of them, or all of them. Use the first letter of each day to trigger the fasting idea.

M - Monday Blues
T - Tangible Tuesday
W - Wednesday Worship
Th - Theological Education Thursday
F - Friendly Friday
S - Social Media Saturday Fast
S - Sunday Sabbatical

Enjoy. As always, pray every day. Remember, Day 1 begins Wednesday tomorrow!


Monday, February 20, 2012

Higher Cost of Theological Education

Written by: Conrade Yap

In the most recent issue of THE REGENT WORLD, there is a writeup about Regent College's 5-Year Strategic Plan. The President of Regent College shares about the challenges surrounding theological education. Firstly, student enrollment numbers are down by almost half since 2003. Secondly, the high costs of education are discouraging potential students to study theology. Thirdly, there are the associated high costs such as housing, currency disparity, volatile markets worldwide, which all add up to the already difficult tuition costs. In trying to address these challenges, Rod Wilson outlines 5 strategic responses, two of which are cutbacks while three are push-forwards. In helping to deal with the costs, Wilson says that the financial structures will be 're-engineered' while at the same time 'streamline' the curriculum. Both are meant to cushion any financial impact on the students. The other three are geared toward greater publicity and beefing up the already great quality of the teaching environment.

I read the proposal cautiously. On the one hand, I understand the need to address the challenges of high costs in theological education. On the other hand, I feel that the costs are way too financially constricted. There is a higher cost that is beyond financial: The cost of NOT having theological education in the first place.

Gone are the days in which people can claim to self-train themselves to become theologians. Granted, there are resources out there that enable people to learn Greek and Hebrew. Lots of websites are offering audio courses, and some of them offer credit courses for a small fee. Some sites like BiblicalTraining.org even distribute materials for free! In an increasingly online world, one of the biggest sense of entitlement in the newer generation is the expectation of 'free stuff.'

A) Context Over Content

Quality education is not about the content or the information any institution dishes out. Quality education is almost always contextual. Any strategy raised needs to consider the contextual question critically. Is education about information giving or formation setting? Is it about flooding the minds with the best of Christian scholarship or the training of the Christian mind? Is it about content focus that is not related to the contexts of the students? Let me share one example. One reason why online education has been advocated by many is the attraction of offering high content at low costs. It appeals to the frugally minded. Unfortunately, it is an unhealthy reduction of what good education is all about.

I have been on the online world long enough to know that what is offered online, is not really adequate. Think about the way we download our Bibles. Which of these two questions are more true?

  1. "Your Word I have hidden in my heart, that I will not sin against You."
  2. "Your Word I have downloaded into my iPod, that I will retrieve when I think I need it."
When I was a IT consultant, one of the regular requirements is to keep up with my certifications. Every quarter, I need to fulfill a certain number of training hours on some of the latest technology offerings. As a way to cut costs, the folks are the corporate headquarters dish out online offerings. I was enthusiastic initially, keeping up with my requirements. Once my other work pressures build up, I found myself cutting corners. I multitasked my way through the training. By opening multiple windows, I will keep one window opened on the training module, another on my Email client, and another on a database application. Sometimes, my training module will time out due to inactivity. At the last minute, my colleagues and I would be sharing answers so that we can simply fulfill the requirements. Eventually, I completed the training with minimal understanding of what the technology is all about.

Theological education can be supplemented with online courses, but not replace the need for face to face learning. For me, I have been in theological education long enough to know that the value of theological education is not the content but the contexts in which we study the context. Theological education is all about learning how to contextualize the information we have. This is best done by interacting with professors, students, staff, and people in general. I hope that the latest Regent strategy will incorporate an increase in contextual awareness even as they 'streamline' course offerings. Online courses are powerful content managers, but are miserable when it comes to contextual awareness. The higher cost of theological education is not based on content but the context. Content means information. Context influences spiritual formation.

B) Promote the Brand

Regent already has a great brand name. Let that not be diminished in any way. Many professors are already engaged in many places. Here, I believe the need is for Regent to use the Word of Mouth strategy to promote the Regent brand. There is no better way than to let the quality of the students/faculty speak for themselves. One of the strongest reasons why students come to a school is due to recommendations by students both past and present. For example, I know of pastors who are always ready to recommend Regent College to their congregation members interested in Bible school. In a nutshell, Regent College can incorporate in their strategy the many 'ambassadors' worldwide. Share with them information on a more regular basis. Utilize the bookstore offerings. Perhaps, regular free audio downloads with an option to give freewill offerings can be adopted. Write and market books written by both Regent faculty as well as alumni. 

One of Regent College's strengths is in marketplace theology. Another is the fame of certain professors, many of them already categorized as 'Professor Emeritus.' Both are enrollment attractions. Another of the strengths is the Summer School courses. I know of some professors already speaking and teaching outside of Regent. Every staff member, every past student, every faculty member past and present are immediately potential ambassadors to promote the brand. Is there an elevator story for them to share with the communities they are living in? Maybe, that ought to be emphasized. Not using sufficiently the strengths and ambassadors of Regent are in themselves a heavy cost to foot.

C) Opportunity Costs

While financial costs may be rising, what is often not evident is the opportunity costs of NOT having theologically trained leaders in the Church. Sometimes, all it takes is a trigger point, a reminder that the typical layperson needs to supplement their personal discipleship program to grow. Theological education is not simply for people who want to enter any Christian-specific full-time ministry. Regent College has been well-known for their theological training for the whole people of God. That is one distinction of being an 'unseminary.'

I remember a missionary years ago coming to my Church to ask some basic questions. Using very familiar questions that puts our basic Bible knowledge to the test, I was astonished to realize that out of 10 simple questions, I had hardly four correct! The missionary then goes on to highlight the need for theological training even for those who have been Christians for a long time. Looking back, I feel that too many people have taken their theologically astute members for granted. Many see the theological vocation as just another way of life. What if more Church people are able to appreciate the VALUE of theological education? What if common issues are debated that exposes people's need for a theological perspective, instead of the common layperson dissing off the need for theology in favour of some common-sense solutions?

Here is an opportunity that all Church leaders need to be aware of. In order to champion the need for theological education, one needs to experience the benefits of theological engagement. Regent faculty and alumni can help beyond just pulpit supplies. They can be champions of theological education by sharing how they apply theology in their lives.

There is another opportunity cost. I know of many people wanting to know what to do with their lives. There are those in mid-life crisis, the fresh graduate out of college, or people simply wanting to know how to discern God's will. Regent College can certainly provide a regular vocational discernment offering, and to PUBLICIZE that! In many cases, opportunity costs of not having any theological training may be higher than financial. Remember how the apostle Paul warns the Church about false teachings and false teachers?

So, in summary, theological education cannot be constricted to content based downloading of information. Theological education is more contextual. Theological education needs to be more widely promoted as a need, especially in many places where people presume their common-sense Bible reading suffice for all circumstances. When people see a need, they will be more readily convinced. Finally, the costs of theological education need to be measured against the opportunity costs of NOT having any theological education. Perhaps, the problem is not the economy. The problem is the lack of vision by church leaders to see theological training as part of their discipleship program. Regent College and its supporters must continue to teach the need for theological education. Every Christian needs to be mindful of disciplining themselves to know God and to make God known. In our increasingly complex world, Christians need to be able to think well. They need to learn to reason well. They need to keep in touch with the world of ideas by learning to counter the world's values with biblical foundations.

While theological education can be intellectual, it is more important to promote theological education as cultivating 'intelligent minds.' The word 'intellectual' has too much negative connotation. 'Intelligent' is better. Mark Noll writes:

"In the end, the question of Christian thinking is a deeply spiritual question. What sort of God will we worship?" (Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994, p253)

A growing disciple will grow in their training of their mind. While zeal in service is important, zeal with knowledge to serve better is even more important. It will be a sad day for the world of theological education if the purpose of any marketing program is the survival of the theological education providers per se.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Old Testament in the Modern World

Christians claim belief in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.  Yet, many tend to read more New Testament than the Old Testament. Just look at some numbers. The Old Testament has 39 books while the New Testament has 27 books, many of which are letters. The bulk of the Bible contains the Old Testament. The Bible that Jesus read is essentially the Old Testament Scriptures. Jesus Himself has said:

"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill." (Matt 5:17, NAS)
Yet, in general, churches tend to preach more sermons on the New Testament than the Old.

Dr Iain Provan is a very respected Professor of Old Testament at Regent-College. I have taken several courses with him before and have been fascinated with his calm, gentle explanation of biblical history and old testament studies, laced with a warm Scottish accent. These 4 interviews are excellently interviewed by a Regent alum, Simon Smart, a director of the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney, Australia.

Part 1 - Can We Trust the Old Testament? (Link)

Can we trust the Old Testament? from CPX on Vimeo.

This interview addresses the criticisms surrounding the reliability of the OT. Provan argues against simplistic generalizations of such critics, the need to read the literature beyond simply reporting facts, but to recognize biblical claims for what they are. The real problem is how to deal with the fragmentary pieces of evidence of biblical data. While problems exist, the disciplines of study are themselves interpretative too. Too many people read OT based on their own presuppositions, and fail to read the Bible for what they are. Too many start off erroneously by reading the OT to prove or disprove something. A good way to read OT is to read and put together all the biblical accounts to discover a common story, in real ancient space and time.

Part 2 - The Old Testament, a Context for Violence (Link)

The Old Testament: A context for Violence from CPX on Vimeo.

This interview talks about violence which critics throw at Christians surrounding ancient tribal barbaric practices. Provan points out that 'the modern world is pretty violent too .  . . 21st Century way more violent. . . ' He argues that the picture of an angry Old Testament God is but one view. Provan says that God works within the different contexts of the world, and that the very people who pass stories are not simply telling a story but framing an ancient reference of law and justice. In other words, ancient literature of harsh violence highlights not the violence but the necessary justice. Other points include the OT often describes violent events to tell us the contextual justice in a world of exceeding dark evil. Not all are meant to be literally applied in our modern world. More importantly, the Old Testament begins with the understanding of God being holy and good.

Part 3 - The Relevance of the Old Testament Today (Link)

The relevance of the Old Testament today from CPX on Vimeo.

How do we get people excited about the Old Testament? Education and understanding of the backgrounds and cultures will help. Firstly, read the Bible on its terms, not ours. Second, compare with parallel ancient conquests and narratives, and we will see that other literature during the Ancient Near East are quite similar to biblical accounts. In other words, biblical story is essentially told through contexts familiar to the biblical audiences at that time. Think about biblical principles and contexts. Read how the Jesus and Paul are able to apply ancient texts to their worlds during their time.

Part 4 - The Bible's Gift to the West (Link)

The Bible's gift to the West from CPX on Vimeo.

Provan asserts that the modern world owes its existence to the capital of a Judea-Christian tradition. For example, people are considered precious due to the sacredness the Bible has held with regards to the sanctity of life. On doubts, Provan says that all thinking people will have questions and doubts. Even Christians too, just like all of life. The point is the context and what we do with our doubts that is the key. Jesus Himself builds on the traditions of the ancient Scriptures. Likewise, one can read to see common themes between the OT and the NT. Themes like forgiveness, salvation, grace, and God's initiatives in the world. The key idea in the OT is not simply about one God. It is about God is good. Everything else flows from this.

Check out the videos. Provan is very clear in explaining the points and we can all learn a lot about the Old Testament through these 4 short video clips.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Three Difficult Words

Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 17 Feb 2012
"So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature." (Gal 3:16)

How do we distinguish the differences between living in the flesh and living in the Spirit? In this article, I want to deal with three difficult words that will shed light over the nuances and subtle differences between flesh and Spirit.

1) 'Concerns' vs 'Worries'

(Credit: mudpreacher.org)
Last week's edition in Sabbathwalk deals largely with the question: "Is worry a sin?" In that article, I argue that we do not need to rush to label all worries as sin. However, behind every worry, there is sin lurking nearby. Distinguishing legitimate concerns from unhelpful worries can be a tricky thing. There are no easy formulas.

One of the most popular gospel stories about a worry is the story of Mary and Martha. In that incident, Martha was busy rushing to get things done inside the house. The presence of a distinguished guest only made it worse. It came to the point that she could not take it anymore. She had to pressure Jesus to tell Mary off.

"But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, 'Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" (Luke 10:40)
Instead, Jesus responded:
"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:41-42)
In this case, note Jesus' comment about 'many things.' One sign in which a genuine concern has deteriorated to unhelpful worry is the pervasiveness of it all. One thing leads to another. Instead of focusing and keeping things in perspective, Martha has allowed the need to get things done to dominate her thinking and feeling. Worse of it all, Martha has allowed worry over chores become more important than her relationship with her sister. Just think about it. Instead of talking nicely to Mary, Martha performs a double-whammy. She uses a third-party (Jesus) to communicate to her sister. She refuses to call her sister by name. When one becomes frustrated to the point of putting tasks above relationships, something has gone out of whack!

Paul writes to the Romans as follows:
"that we should no longer be slaves to sin." (Rom 6:6)
As long as we are in the flesh, we sin. As long as we are sinners, we are slaves to sin. Is our 'concern' or 'worry' enslaving us? If it is, disregard the semantics. The flesh can easily transform a 'concern' into a 'worry,' and 'worry' into an endless cycle of anxiety and distrust. Joanna Weaver gives us some tips about distinguishing concerns from worries. She says that concerns tend to be on a legitimate problem, while worries often hype up unfounded cares. Concerns are specific but worries are fleeting. Concerns address the real problems while worries is 'obsessed' about the problem. For Christians, the biggest marker is WHO we are directing our concerns toward. Are we directing it to God? Are we directing it to self-wisdom?

2) 'Confident-in-Self' vs 'Confidence-in-God'

We can either continue to live in the flesh or to live in the Spirit. We have to choose. Not choosing it is already a choice of the flesh. One question that I like to ask is when is 'self-control' a legitimate one? My SabbathWalk article this week talks about the character of spiritual leadership. Apparently, one of my readers have pointed out that the table that I quoted from J. Oswald Sanders tends to be oversimplified. The disagreement is over the flesh-led 'self-confidence' versus a Spirit-inspired 'confident in God.' What I have failed to include is that Sanders is comparing and contrasting the 'differences' between natural and spiritual leadership. He is not directly throwing away the baby with the bathwater. Sanders acknowledges that while everyone of us has a natural ability to become a leader, spiritual leaders do not REMAIN in their natural skills. They progress to becoming more led by the Spirit more and more. At the same time, they become less reliant on the cleverness of the flesh. This is the crux of spiritual leadership that is confident in God.

Self-confidence is a tricky thing. I understand that there are legitimate desires to do something well. Yet, many Christians begin well but fail to end well. When we are confident in self, we may start well. We may not end well. Instead, we may end up prideful about our competencies. Worse, we may end up attributing all achievements to a humanistic glory rather than acknowledging that we have accomplished so much because God has first enabled me and blessed me with skills.

This is the case of the Babylonian ruler, King Nebucchanezzar during the times of Daniel. See how self-deception engulfs the arrogant king.

"The king reflected and said, ‘Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?’" (Dan 4:30)
God humbles the proud but elevates the humble. The choice is not ours but God's. Self-confidence in the flesh, directly or indirectly, puts the self on the throne, and uses the name of God for self-fulfillment.

Jesus says:
"For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 14:11)
The great English preacher, Charles H. Spurgeon says it well:

"Humility is a right estimate of one's self."

3) 'Self-Control:' Flesh or Spirit?

The third thing about the flesh and the Spirit is about who is sitting on our throne. Is it us or is it God? This is admittedly a tough one. From Paul's letter to the Romans, we see how sin controls us. Sin tries to master us (Rom 6:14). Sin enslaves us to make us serve its whims and fantasies (Rom 6:16,19). Sin remains in the flesh (Rom 7:18). Sin ties to disturb our spiritual contentment in God with an unholy discontent in keeping the law (Rom 7:23). We can only be set free when we confess we need help (Rom 7:24).

What is even more confusing is that self-control is labeled a fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5:23. The Greek word 'egkrateia' means mastery of the self. It is refusing to let the flesh control us, and to let the Spirit of God lead us, willingly and lovingly.

Self-control in the flesh has to do with the reverse. Instead of mastery of self, it unwittingly allows self to become master and dictator of the flesh. One simple way to discover this is the age-old saying: "Only time will tell." Indeed, spiritual things do not always happen at an instant. King Saul started well, but ended tragically when he set himself higher than God. When sin is in control, it aims for the next level: Cruise control. In other words, sin is like a Trojan horse, entering our bodies and minds with an innocent premise. When the time is right, it will grow and take control over our complete selves. White becomes black after multiple layers of gray.

Norm Wakefield teaches us the need to be connected to the Spirit. He writes:

"One of the most important aspects of this new you is the way your Spirit has been connected to the Spirit of our Lord. The power to confront the sin in our flesh resides in this new, mighty, invincible power that has been bonded to our spirit. So now we can begin to understand our Lord's strategy. He doesn't change our flesh; rather, he unites our spirit with a force that is greater than the evil force in our flesh. His intention is to defeat this persistent power by bringing a new greater power through our spirit. A crucial key is to discover how to join forces with the Spirit of God in a way that allows his unlimited power to be unleashed against the enemy that occupies our flesh." (Norm Wakefield, Who Gives a Rip About Sin?, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002, 97)
When we see 'self-control' in terms of who is behind the wheel, we can understand who is in control. We all like to be steering the wheel ourselves. There is a saying that if Jesus is sitting in the front of our cars next to us, swap seats! Let Jesus do the driving.

When we live in the flesh, we indoctrinate ourselves into thinking that it is all about us. When we live in the Spirit, we humbly acknowledge that it is all about God. Flesh will continue to war against the Spirit. We have to choose. Even for those who have confessed Jesus as Lord, they are still living in the flesh.

Christian Spirituality is how we allow the Spirit of God change us from behind to become more Christlike.  Fleshly control not only refuses to cede control to God. The flesh seeks to put itself on the throne, and unwittingly becomes victims of the devilish forces of darkness and deception. William Farley makes this insightful comment in his recent book, Gospel-Power Humility.

".. the proud man thinks he is humble, but the humble man thinks he is proud." (William P. Farley, Gospel-Powered Humility, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2011, p26)

Be careful. Many activities start off honourably with a declaration that they are serving God. Eventually, they end up becoming a self-serving enterprise.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day - A Waste of Time

I know, I know. Some of you may be up in arms against me as you read this. Hear me out first ok?

Credit: allbestwallpapers.com
Valentine's Day is a waste of time. What do I mean? I do not mean a waste of money. I have been noticing how flower shops have been stocking up on roses galore. The other day at a hypermarket, I noticed bouquets of flowers of assorted colours on sale. Nicely packaged, complete with decorations and a card to fill in some words of intimacy and love, every bunch of roses are crying out: "Take me! Take me! She'll love me, and she'll love you even more!"

Come to think of it, will flowers really make my wife love me more?

Some of my friends tell me that their wives do not like flowers on Valentine's Day. (Bless them!) Many feel that the whole event has become too commercialized. There is no point paying good money after some ordinary flowers at 3 times the normal price.

My wife do not expect me to buy flowers for her on Valentine's Day. I told her since we got married that I will not buy flowers on Valentine's Day. It's too expensive and too much of a fad. It is also such a  meaningless activity in chasing after the flowers. One year I relented. I bought her just one rose. It symbolized my declaration of her being my only love of my life. Of course, God is always our love. I am talking about human to human.

A) A Waste of Time

What do I mean by Valentine's Day being a waste of time? Certainly, I am not brushing off St Valentine and the meaning of sharing love and passion with one's beloved. Wasting time is essentially using Matthew Kelly's phrase: 'care-free timelessness.' Imagine a guy asking a girl out on a date on Valentine's Day. Whipping out his classy iPhone 4S, he opens up the agenda:

6pm - Pick her up at her office
7pm - Arrive at the Italian Restaurant for dinner.
8pm - Dessert time
8.30pm - Pay bills and leave
9pm - Catch a romantic movie
11pm - Eat Ice-cream at a drive-in restaurant
12am - Pucker up.

In a corporate world of 'if-you-fail-to-plan-you-plan-to-fail,' it is tempting to program in a romantic schedule with such precision, as if the other party will respond exactly as planned. Mind you, your love interest or partner is not a football player that plays a game with two half-times, officiated by a time keeper. Your love interest is not supposed to stick to your plans at all costs, despite your best intentions. The date is a time for you to just enjoy the companionship and the warmth of knowing you think about and care for him/her.

Carefree timelessness is much lacking in our results-driven world. We are so used to following a schedule according to the clock. From the alarm clock in the morning to the lunch time bell, from working 9-5 at work, and relaxing 8-12 at home, our lives are regulated by the clock. Our social structures are beginning to look like people fitting into the structure rather than the structure fitting into people's lives.

I miss my childhood days where I can play with my friends without any concern about time. Together with my friends, we would kick the ball on the field, slide through the mud, throw dirt at one another, and simply have fun playing. There was no keeping track of time. There was no cares or concerns to worry about. There was only play, play, and more play. Until of course, our mothers come screaming at us to come home. Some of my friends got their ears pulled as they screamed and kicked.

Strange. When we become adults, we seemed to have lost the art of enjoying play and one another's company. We have become too driven, too focused, and too impatient to make others fit into our lives. After living in a world where we try to fit ourselves into the worldly structures of schedules, appointments, and time-sensitive work, we unwittingly expect our partners to fit into our own expectations and schedules.

No! Carefree timelessness is about being free to care without worrying about time. It is being free to let our partners be themselves. It is being free to let ourselves enjoy the time together. It is being free to 'waste" our time. Even as the clock ticks away, we learn to enjoy one another as if the battery in the clock has died. Time has frozen. The cares of the world evaporate as we become captivated in one another's eyes, and our hands in each other's grasps.

B) Free to Love

If couples can be freed from the tyranny of rushing themselves to fit the time schedules, it is truly a liberating experience. If we run by the clock, we will be constantly checking our watches. Sometimes, that can become so precise that we become guilty of mechanizing our date experience. Humans are created to be free. Why try to cage people in? Why the need to force one another to fit our schedules when we have been locked in a schedule during the day already?

The great love verse by the Apostle Paul is a reminder to us what love is all about.
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." (1 Cor 13:4-7)

When we love one another, time is a tool, not a ruler. Love needs to be patient enough to wait for one another. Perhaps, each of us have different approaches to warm ourselves up to each other. Love is kind enough to let our partners be themselves, and us be our best selves during that special time together. Love does not envy other people and will refuse to do something simply because other people are doing it. Love will not boastful or prideful of how much one has done, but will boast about the merits and beauty of one's partner. Love will not be rude to the servers in the restaurants, or the traffic wardens and drivers, because one's love is not easily angered. Love is not self-seeking in trying to fit other people into our schedules. It is to allow ourselves to fit into other people's moods as much as possible to trust and to protect.

C) Love 'ALWAYS' Transcends Time

As I think about one of the late Whitney Houston's best songs, "I will always love you," it is a testimony of love being one of carefree timelessness. How can we honestly say, "I will ALWAYS love you," if we are constantly driven by the clock, by the agenda, and by our own self-interests?

Spending time with our loved ones needs to be one that is open, not closed in by an agenda. True love transcends time. True love puts the one in front of you above any agenda. True love does not rush the other. True love walks together when it is time to walk. True love talks when it is time to talk. True love enjoys the silence when it is time to be quiet. Love is enjoying beauty in all of its essence. Let me close with a quote about beauty.

 “Life is full of beauty. Notice it. Notice the bumble bee, the small child, and the smiling faces. Smell the rain, and feel the wind. Live your life to the fullest potential, and fight for your dreams.” (Ashley Smith, American author)

D) A New Agenda

The most romantic activities are often free!
Ok. For those of us who are die-hard schedulers or timekeepers, may I propose this new agenda.

6pm-12am: It's all about you, and for you, darling.

Then watch how the whole evening unfolds.

Perhaps, when we learn to appreciate nature for what nature is, people for what people are, and life for what life is, we will appreciate beauty and be able to appreciate loving one another better. For love transcends time. Love transcends our selfishness. Love transcends worldly values. May our special day for our loved ones be not constrained by time or agendas. May our love be free. May our love be free to 'waste' our time so that we can love our beloved freely and wholly.

Love well. Hey. If you need to buy that bouquet, go ahead. Perhaps, the roses will lock her in a state of 'carefree timelessness' beyond Valentine's Day, just thinking about how much you are thinking about her?


Friday, February 10, 2012

Book Review: "The Mysterious Epigenome"

TITLE: The Mysterious Epigenome: What Lies Beyond DNA
AUTHORS: Thomas E. Woodward and James P. Gills
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012, (160 pages).

Here is my review that I have posted at Amazon entitled "Every genome points to an Intelligent Designer." A fuller review is available in my book blog here.


If the human genome is the tip of the iceberg, the epigenome is the rest of the iceberg. This sets the tone for the entire book that argues for the case of an Intelligent Design, created by an Intelligent Designer. Science alone cannot answer all the questions of life. This book is an opportunity for readers to see that science, health, spirituality need to work together to paint a fuller picture of the human genome, genetics, and the purpose of it all.

We can try to dichotomize life into various compartments. Yet, it is not possible to separate life into spiritual and non-spiritual categories. Everything in life is spiritual. It is like how possible is it to separate our work from our feelings? We are not robots. Every act, every thought, every plan, stems from an intentionality that begins somewhere. Whether we are writing a book, planning a project, or studying for a course, there is a certain intention. The authors ask four basic questions of life that involve the interface of all aspects of life, be it science, health, or spirituality.

  • What is life's purpose? 
  • What is the point of the universe? 
  • Why is there something rather than nothing? 
  • Why is humankind brilliantly equipped to pursue such questions - to analyze the conundrum of creation? 

These are questions that can only be addressed when we consider spirituality. Science can explain the 'whats' and to some extent the 'hows.' Spirituality extends the quest to include the 'whys.' I agree a lot with the authors with regards to Intelligent Design. Unfortunately, I feel that the authors could have engaged alternative views more openly, instead of an outright dismissal. What is more helpful is to present an unbiased view and then to offer their interpretations, instead of interpreting for the readers right from the start.

That said, I highly recommend this book for its ability to weave spiritual insights into scientific research. I like the convictions of the authors. I like the clear storylike explanations of the various concepts and terms. I like the integration of scientific research and the constant asking of what does it mean for us in practice throughout the book. This book is clearly a book arguing for the existence of God. It is another piece of evidence that the atheistic position is less and less tenable. It requires more faith on the part of the atheist to believe that such intelligent design and workings of the genome 'simply happened.' For me, there has to be a God behind such intricacies. If you are not convinced about a Creator God behind such Intelligent Design, at least, this book helps keep a posture of being open about it.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


I am grateful to Kregel Publications for supplying me a free copy of the book, without any obligations for a positive review. The opinions offered above are freely given without expectation of any financial compensation.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Nice Quick Way to Share the Gospel

Ever find yourself stuck with what to say when given an opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus Christ? Maybe this can help. Taken from Bill Hybels's "Witnessing without Fear," with emphases mine.
"Let me share with you how you can know God personally. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. But, everyone is separated from God because He is holy and people cannot measure up to His standard of holiness. Rom. 3:23 says, "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." Jesus Christ came into the world to bridge the gap between man and God, to die on the cross of Calvary 2,000 years ago and pay for the penalty of the sins of the world for those who believe in Him. Romans 6:23 says, "the wages of sin is death, but, the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord." Alternative religious views have saviors who remain in the grave. No other system offers everlasting life as a gift to those who follow their leaders. None of those leaders has overcome death. No other system offers assurance of forgiveness, eternal life, and adoption into the family of God. Jesus Christ offers you salvation because He died for your sins and rose from the dead. You can call on God and trust in His Son for salvation in the same way a drowning person calls for help and relies on the rescue of a lifeguard. Jesus has promised the gift of salvation -- forgiveness of sins and eternal life -- to all who believe in Him. Romans 10:9 says: "If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved".(NIV) © Bill Bright, "Witnessing Without Fear"

It begins with God. It states man's imperfect state. It reveals that man needs help from above. It shares the person of Jesus who came, who died, and who rose from the dead. Whoever believes in Jesus will live eternal life.

Again, remember that this is only an introduction. There are a lot of things to say about it, and lots more to add to it. Nevertheless, always have a personal testimony to go along with it.


Tuesday, February 07, 2012

ASSET Leadership

Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 7 Feb 2012

Leaders are assets to any organization. Good leaders are great assets. Poor leaders will become liabilities in the long run. Leadership is a challenge anywhere we go. In many cases, leaders are hard to find. Good leaders are harder, even impossible to find. Whether it is a for-profit multi-national corporation, or a small time business, an international non-profit, or an independent charity house, leaders are essential not just to keep the organization running, it is critical to keep it running in the right direction.

This week, I am mindful of leadership matters. In preparing to preach a series of sermons on leadership matters, today I want to introduce a ASSET acronym to describe the kind of Christian leader that every organization needs. The first three, Authoritative, Spiritual, and Sacrificial deal with the requirements of spiritual leadership, and is attributed to J Oswald Sanders, of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. The next two, Encouraging and Toughness deal with the requirements to sustain the leadership endeavour.

"If the world is to hear the church's voice today, leaders are needed who are authoritative, spiritual, and sacrificial. Authoritative, because people desire leaders who know where they are going and are confident of getting there. Spiritual, because without a strong relationship in God, even the most attractive and competent person cannot lead people to God. Sacrificial, because this follows the model of Jesus, who gave himself for the whole world and who calls us to follow in His steps." (J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1994, 18)

Lately, the word 'authoritative' has been given a rather bad name. In countries like Canada, where politicians are voted in and out all the time, leaders are not normally given the respect. Leaders are expected to earn the respect. Many countries in post-Christendom Europe, are still recovering from devastating religious wars that gives religion a bad rap. Authority is frowned upon. The Church's authority are increasingly being questioned. Democratic mindsets insist that authority must remain with the people. Moreover, with some African and Asian regimes that rule their nations with iron-clad harshness, complete with draconian punishment, leadership tends to be feared rather than desired.

According to Sanders, authoritative means direction setting and the planning to get there. Good leaders are not simply interested in maintaining or running mundane day to day matters. They need to delegate and stay focused on things long-term. They remain in touch with daily tasks mainly to ensure that the work done is on track with the mission and the vision.


What makes spiritual leadership unique from others is because leadership is about leading for God. Secular organizations mainly focus on gains for self or for people inside and outside the organization. It is about people. This is not true of Christian organizations, Churches, or non-profits with an evangelical theme. Spiritual leadership is about leading from a strong relationship with God. The requirement for spiritual leadership is to be blameless.
"An elder must be blameless. . . " (Titus 1:6a)
Sanders gives a helpful comparison of natural vs spiritual leadership.

Natural Leadership Spiritual Leadership
Self-Confident Confident in God
Knows Men Also knows God
Makes own decisions Seek God's will
Ambitious Humble
Creates methods Follow God's example
Enjoys command Delights in obedience to God
Seeks personal reward Loves God and others
Independent Depends on God
[Table from Oswald Sanders's Spiritual Leadership, p29]

Sanders makes a third requirement for spiritual leadership: Sacrificial. The key is to be like Jesus. First off, I believe we all need to imitate Christ as best as we can. Yet, the thing is, we are not Jesus. Secondly, I am wary of treating Christian leadership and service as 'sacrifice' because it is more accurately a privilege. I understand what Sanders means when he talks about sacrificial. He essentially means putting down one's elf-interests for the sake of Christ. The world has changed since the 60s-70s era, the time when Spiritual Leadership was first published. Modern readers tend to interpret 'sacrifice' differently than during Sanders's time. Some has unwittingly used sacrifice as an excuse to boast unconsciously of themselves. Remember 1 Corinthians 13:3?
"If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing."
Be sacrificial yes. Make sure humility and love are companions to that sacrifice.


One of the biggest obstacles to effective and long-term spiritual leadership is discouragement. It is not whether it will come. It is a question of when. Discouragement hits at the core of the leaders motivation. When the results do not come, when the people fails to participate in the programs and initiatives, when the sheep leaves the flock, leaders can become discouraged. This is why I add in the word 'encouraging.' It is a verb that is meant to be bi-directional.

Leaders need to disciple other leaders by encouraging them in their faith walk and Christian witness. Through prayer, through regular contact, through building rapport, good leaders will take time to prioritize encouraging their fellow leaders and subordinates. I like this Jewish proverb that is a great encouragement.

"I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders."
Likewise, leaders need encouragement too. The organization needs followers who are able to encourage leaders in kind. Have a prayer fellowship where the whole Church regularly prays for their leaders. Remember the words from Paul?

"I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." (1 Tim 2:1-2)


Finally, leaders cannot be sissies. Leaders need to have a toughness in them. They are not made of sugar balls that dissolve under the first drops of fine rain. They are to be of steely character, not easily swayed or stopped by discouragement. They can feel down for a while. They can take a retreat of an appropriate length. If the break is not forthcoming, they will plan for it. They will tough it out because they are fixated on the Higher Calling, the Greater Purpose. As long as they are able to fix their eyes on Jesus, they will know that it is not their call to give up. It is their willingness to give in to God's timing.

Toughness requires a mental readiness to turn threats into opportunities. When obstacles and criticisms come like bricks thrown at us, catch the bricks and build something with them! Someone once gives this wise advice:

"A bend in the road is not the end of the road... unless you fail to make the turn."

May we all pray that we have ASSET leaders in our midst. Otherwise, pray to God and ask Him for at least one of each quality. A leader with authoritative vision. A leader with spiritual discernment. A leader with sacrificial and humble spirit. A leader who is encouraging. A leader who can tough it out. ASSET persons are assets that the Church, and any Christian organization needs.

We need ASSET leaders.


Monday, February 06, 2012

A Few Good Servants

Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 6 Feb 2012

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
One of the most famous lines said by Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, Timothy Dalton, and Daniel Craig is this introduction of the British secret agent: "My name is Bond, James Bond." Yesterday, I joked with one person. "Our name is Bond, Bond Servant." In a twist to the familiar line uttered proudly by the world famous secret service agent, 007, it reminds us that as far as Christian service is concerned, 'servant' is our lastname. We are bounded to one another in love, to God in Christ. We are bonded to Christ in service. The Greek word 'doulos' typically means being under the will and direction of the master. He follows the will of his Lord, his Master, his Superior. Paul, in his letter to Titus, begins with the following,

"Paul, a bond-servant of God. . . " (Titus 1a)

This is significant because of the very nature of Paul's illustrious past as a top solicitor, a famous Pharisee, and a prominent Jew. In a remarkable contrast to his glorious past, he submits himself to a lowly position. Servanthood is a mark of discipleship. Serving becomes a joy because servants of God serve the King of kings. In this article, I want to argue that it is more important for a few good men, than many unwilling people thrust into serving. People are not made for structures. Structures are meant to facilitate serving one another.

A) The Servant Leader

Servant Washing another's feet.
(Credit: gospelcentric.com)
Sometimes I feel the term 'Servant Leadership' is an oxymoron. Can a lowly servant actually lead? The phrase 'servant leadership' was first made popular by Robert K. Greenleaf who published a book entitled: "The Servant as Leader." In that book, the key point is:

"The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?" (Robert Greenleaf)

Robert Greenleaf's inspiration for the Servant Leader concept comes out of a book by Hermann Hesse. In Hesse's "Journey to the East," there is a story of a group of men on a pilgrimage to find the great 'Truth.' Among the group, there is a servant by the name of Leo, a simple servant, but with a great joyful heart. Working behind the scenes, he serves the rest of the group. He serves them in every possible way. He sings to them. He encourages them. Leo demonstrates his servanthood through simple acts of kindness and service. He is diligent. He is cheerful. He caters to the needs of the group as much as possible. Unfortunately, he is taken for granted. Along the way, due to the group's distrust and suspicion of Leo, even accusing Leo of stealing their things, Leo disappears. From that point on, the group disintegrates, and the journey ends abruptly.

A lack of trust and a rise of suspicion spell the end of the servant relationship. The loss of the servant Leo leads to the loss of overall direction of the group. The one big lesson in this story is this: It is the presence of servanthood that sustains the health, the unity, and the purpose of the group. Behind every functioning organization is the presence of a team of people with a servant heart. For that, we need to create a culture of serving one another. Do not look for great numbers of people who are willing to serve as leaders. Look for a few good servants who are not just willing, but MORE than willing. We need a few good servants. In true servanthood, quality trumps quantity. Jesus didn't have hundreds of people. He had only 12 disciples.

B) A Few Good Servants

This ties in very closely to the way Jesus does discipleship. Let those who have, serve the have-nots. Let those who are strong, bear with the failings of the weak. Let those who know, take initiative to share what they know freely and graciously. A few good servants of high commitment and humble hearts are to be intentionally prayed for. It is much better than hundreds of half-hearted individuals who happen to volunteer simply because no one else is doing it. In fact, I am even inclined to suggest that if no one is willing to step forward for any particular ministry, mothball that ministry. I remember a time when no one is willing to head up the Evangelism and Mission subcommittee. I said to the leaders, "Why not just leave it for the year? Structures need to be made for people, and not people for the structures."

We need to pray for a few good servants. We give thanks for those who are serving behind the scenes all the time. Perhaps, instead of 80% of our time trying to look for new leaders, why not spend 80% of the time encouraging our present set of leaders? Encourage them to look for new leaders too. Disciple them. Motivate them from time to time. Build in rhythms of work and rest. Forbid them from serving for a year when they have done a continuous tour of duty for say, 4 years.

As servant leaders, we serve not out of our own strength, we serve out of a recognition of God's empowering us. A few good servants will rock the world. A few good servants will cover greater ground. Just like the proverbial saying, 'too many cooks spoil the soup,' too many mediocre servants spoil the overall effectiveness of the organization.

C) A Few Good Soldiers: Sparta

Recreated scene of the Battle of Thermopylae
(Credit: awesomestories.com)
Let me end with a story. In the fame battle of Thermopylae, mighty Persia with its huge army of hundreds of thousands, found stiff resistance in a small ragtag group of Spartan soldiers protecting a Greek land. Spartan soldiers are trained from young with discipline, grit, and utter courage to brave any kinds of difficulty. When a spartan man goes to war, the wife will come alongside him and motivates him to fight well for the higher purpose of the kingdom. Whole families are behind the Spartan men called to war. With such emotional support, with the intentional training by the military, with the courage of iron sharpening iron within the ranks of the army, the Spartan army is a formidable force to be reckoned with. The recent movie, 300, dramatizes how 300 Spartans manage to hold back more than a million Persian soldiers. Even though the Persians eventually won, the Spartans struck a death blow to the morale and emotional confidence of the mighty Persians.

As servants of God, leaders in the Church that God has given us, we are called to spiritual warfare to defend the kingdom from false teachings, and mediocre lifestyles. We are called to be bold, to be strong and courageous to serve. Let not the numbers or the lack of it discourage us. Leaders of the Church must lead from the Spirit of God.
"We must be silent before we can listen. We must listen before we can learn. We must learn before we can prepare. We must prepare before we can serve. We must serve before we can lead." (William Arthur Ward)
We serve because Christ first served us.


Friday, February 03, 2012

Four Impediments to Prayer (Abba Ammonas)

TITLE: Four Impediments to Prayer
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 3 Feb 2012

Many scholars continue to uncover the richness of the spirituality of the desert fathers. As the modern world runs out of original ideas, one finds that the inspirational and the motivational stuff marketed by gurus all over, often look good on the outside, but bland on the inside. On the contrary, the desert monks' teachings seem so bland on the outside, but full of rich wisdom on the inside. Indeed, the most profound things in the world tend to be simple things.

Bernadette McNary-Zak, an Associate Professor of religious studies at Rhodes College, has formed another bridge to help modern readers appreciate the ancient desert fathers and their wisdom. Through the study of the works of Abba Ammonas, a prominent leader of the monastic movement in the 4th Century, MacNary-Zak gives us a glimpse of how Ammonas practices and teaches spiritual formation. Powerful in spiritual discernment, harsh on sin, sensitive to the movement of God, Ammonas's works are nutritious fodder for those of us students of Christian spirituality. I am particularly intrigued by Ammonas's 4 teachings about the impediments to prayer. After all, in nearly every Church, prayer seems to be a primary spiritual discipline. Embarrassingly, prayer is less of a lifestyle and more of a scheduled prayer meeting, or saying grace over each meal. All of these prayers are nothing if we do not deal with the barriers that inhibit our praying.

With regards to prayer, Ammonas has strong words.

"There are four things, and, if anyone has even one of them, that person cannot be converted, nor does God accept his prayers." - Abba Ammonas in (Bernadette McNary-Zak, Useful Servanthood, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010, 140)
A key point to note with regards to Abba Ammonas is that the spiritual journey is a movement, from imperfection to perfection through union with God.

Impediment #1 - Arrogance
Ammonas says that our default position should not be one of being pleased with ourselves. Instead, we ought to assume that 'his work is not pleasing to God' as a default position. The human nature is no better than the beast because sin has corrupted the original perfect man. This is why the inclination of man is always away from God, and toward self-righteousness. Letting our arrogance run loose with ourselves being pleased with our own deeds is simply anathema with regards to prayer.

"Adornment of the body is the ruin of the soul, but provision for [the body], according to the fear of God, is good." (144)

Impediment #2 - Grudges Against Another Person
Ammonas warns that any attempt to pretend or to hide one's sin against another person, will affect our praying. God will not listen to us. He points out that such people 'deceive' themselves to the point that they think they have a 'portion of mercy or forgiveness from God.' Those of us who tries to rationalize our behaviour by blaming others are only deceiving ourselves.

"If you live with brothers, do not order them about in every matter, but labour with them, so that you may not lose your fruit." (147)

Impediment #3 - Judging Others

Ammonas also warns that those of us who judge others will ourselves be judged. He says that even God the Father lets Christ judge all things. Why should any man then have the nerve to assume a judgmental disposition? One of the reasons why we are unfair judges is because when we judge, very often we highlight the sins of other people, and diminish whatever virtues they may have.

"Have no enmity against another, since your prayer will not be acceptable. Live in peace with everyone so that your prayer may be confident." (146)

Impediment #4 - No Love

Without true love, our prayers will not be heard. Those who are truly loving, will not only have mercy on all, but will also pray for all. Doing good works alone is not enough. One needs to let love motivate the doing of the good works.

"Love is the fulfillment of the virtues; to pronounce oneself righteous is the fulfillment of the passions." (146)


If we want to pray in a manner that God will hear, we need to watch our arrogance. Let there be no semblance of self-righteousness, but a recognition that our default position is of unworthiness. Second, we need to deal with our relationships. Any grudges, any bad blood, we need to take active steps to reconcile. Then, we need to refrain from putting ourselves in the judgment seat, lest we be judged. Finally, let love be the motivation for our desire to pray. Which comes back to the fulfilment of the greatest commandments: Love God, Love neighbour as much as ourselves.

Let me close with an encouragement from Abba Ammonas.

"Take care, beloved, to observe these commands which have been written down, so that you may be able to be saved with the holy ones who are faithful to the commands of our Lord Jesus Christ." (151)

Let us be mindful of these 4 impediments to prayer. Remove them. Then our prayers will be heard.


Thursday, February 02, 2012

Four Insights About Facts of Sin


(Michelangelo's depiction of the Sin of Adam and Eve)
Sin is not a very popular topic to talk about. Even Christians are hesitant in talking about sin. Yet, sin is a huge topic with regards to Christian Theology. Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the most popular preachers in the evangelical world even calls sin the 'lost language of salvation.' The thrust of her arguments is about modern preachers who shy away from tackling the topic of sin. I agree with Taylor that sin is not something to be swept under our carpets of decency. It is to be exposed out in the open so that the light of Christ can come and shine, cleanse, and make us whole once again.

Norm Wakefield makes four interesting insights about sin which I thought is worth sharing.

1) Sinning: A symptom of a deeper need

Wakefield points out the way the Apostle Paul uses the word 'sin' in the epistles. The word 'sin' is used as a noun 40 times, and only once as a noun. Nouns essentially point to the source, while verbs point to the symptoms. In other words, one should not be distracted by the bad deeds, evil actions, without dealing with the source of the problem: Sin.

2) Sin: It attaches itself to a legitimate need

This is what makes sin such a dangerous thing. Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden that senses Eve's desire for the luscious fruit. It puts in evil thoughts and seduces the innocent couple to disobey God. What makes temptations like these extremely dangerous is that it is evil but appears like a valid need. Wakefield then highlights the temptation of sexual sins via the need of intimacy. Like a man who is newly married, but worked long hours physically away from his wife, gets seduced by an attractive colleague in the workplace. The need for intimacy is valid, but the supply of the need through adulterous thoughts is evil.

3) Nature of Sin: False Love

The third insight from Wakefield is about the way that sin continues to destroy the true picture of love. The ways are via deceit, distraction, distortion, and ultimately destruction.  The Greek word for 'sin' is to miss the mark. Legitimate needs when mixed with sin will end up distorted. It redefines what love is. It tricks the mind to think that loving self is better than loving others. It turns something good into something less than good, before turning it into something completely bad.

4) Sin Undermines Trust in God, and makes Man Doubt God's Ability to Save

This fourth insight from Wakefield presents the real objective of sin.  The devil knows that when man is separated from God, God hurts. Even though Christ has died for all mankind, and has defeated death and the evil ones at the Cross, sin continues to wreak havoc by sowing seeds of doubt in people. Even believers can be duped into thinking that the Cross of Christ is not enough.

Sin is a huge topic. As I think about the four insights, here are four recommendations on what we can do to deal with each of them.

Firstly, recognize that our legitimate needs have to be met by legitimate sources. When in doubt, don't. It comes back to trust in God to meet our legitimate needs. We must focus on the source rather than the symptoms.

Secondly, discernment is key. Not everything that looks good means it is good. We need to peel away false layers presented to us, through prayer, consultation, and the keeping of God's Word in our hearts.

"I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you." (Ps 119:11)

Thirdly, we need to distinguish true love from false love. Read through 1 Corinthians 13. Meditate on the fruit of love in Galations 5:22-26.

Fourthly, trust God. Someone once said:

"Don't tell God how Big your storm is, tell the Storm how Big your God is."

Our God is higher than any other. Jesus is our Saviour, our Hope, our Redeemer, and our Lord. Wait for Him.

"As health expels disease, and light swallows up darkness, and life conquers death, the indwelling of Christ through the Spirit is the health and light and life of the soul." (Andrew Murray) 


Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Shameful CTV One-Sided Reporting

Recently, CTV did an 'investigative' journalism on a counselling session at one of Vancouver's crisis pregnancy center. The reporter concerned, pretended to be pregnant and sought 'counselling.' Finally, the whole 'investigative report' compresses the entire investigation into a less than 5 minutes video clip shown on national TV. If you watch the video carefully, note the following:

  • Pregnancy Pretense: Controversial ethics in question about falsifying one's identity and bringing in hidden cameras to 'expose' a non-profit organization as if the organization is guilty-until-proven-innocent;
  • Why only one point of view? Clearly the report is geared toward casting doubts on the credibility of the crisis pregnancy center.
  • Biased reporting: The reporter appears to be bent on hammering the organization that is against abortion.
The MP has raised concerns about such one-sided reporting, which clearly goes against the spirit of fair reporting. In the press release, Maurice Vellacort writes:
It is CTV’s duty, as a Canadian broadcaster, to treat fairly all sides of a controversial issue,... It is no secret that abortion is a controversial issue. Relying almost exclusively on views espoused by abortion providers and abortion advocacy organizations for a story about pregnancy options is like relying solely on the views espoused by tobacco companies and smokers’ rights groups for a story about whether to take up smoking or not,

CTV is one of the news stations I regularly tune into. I am beginning to doubt its credibility as a fair news station. This type of 'investigative reporting' that is one-sided, seems to be planted by pro-choice activists to unfairly cast the non-profit crisis pregnancy center into negative light is totally uncalled for. I am disgusted by the lack of transparency on CTV's part with regards to humiliating the workers at the crisis pregnancy center. Come on. The crisis pregnancy center needs to be given sufficient room to present their side of the story. CTV has shamelessly cut and past what CTV wants, promote the short 5-minute clip as if that 5-minutes is ALL that the crisis pregnancy is talking about, and worse, creating hypocrites out of themselves. If CTV is so bent on saying that the crisis pregnancy center concerned is NOT giving women sufficient options, why is CTV not giving normal viewers sufficient options to see BOTH sides of the story. Why not show the full clip of the entire hidden camera footage? Why only the short 5 minutes?

I think CTV owes an explanation to ordinary viewers like me to explain why they are doing what they are doing. The media must not take sides. This investigative reporting appears to show only the Pro-Choice side of the story. Shame on you CTV.


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