Sunday, December 17, 2006

Christmas is Depressing?

This reflection was written way back in 2000 but I somehow couldn't find them on my blogs, so.. here it is dug up from my hard disk.

Christmas is depressing. So the experts tell us.

Psychologists have long been familiar with a phenomena they call 'Holiday Blues' (HB). Characterised by a sad, melancholy and anxious mood connected with the holiday season, such a state is seen as pathological and inappropriate because of its mood-incongruent features1 . Some reports claim attempted suicide increased during and after Christmas.
The heart of HB is captured by this statement: People are supposed to be happy and glad during the holidays - since I am not, there is something wrong with me that must be fixed or made to disappear.

The etiology of Holiday Blues is multi-factorial. If you're feeling down when the guy next to you is straining 'Fa la la la la!' in high-pitched tones, the contrast is depressing. Also, the year end is a time of self-evaluation and remembering past failures - 'I didn't do so good this year, what's there to celebrate?'. If we're separated from family and loved ones, the loneliness and isolation becomes intensified. And there is pressure to appear sociable and happy at parties, gatherings, and even church services. Wrap that all up with fatigue and stress and you have a sure formula for a crash, burnout and depression.

That's the scene today - artificial merriment making things worse for a person who has real problems of life to cope with.

Ah.. but that's the world! You say. Surely Christians are not susceptible to this phenomena! We have the true meaning of Christmas! Well, to investigate how Christians feel, I asked some old friends about their experience in past Christmases. Take note of the irony in what they say.

"There is so much work, so little time to reflect!"
"I remember how (as a student) I used to feel so empty on Christmas day because that's the time everything is over."
"All the activities! And nobody focuses on the beauty of Christmas itself."

It's a tragedy, I say. Caroling hungrily from street to street. Endless rehearsals to get that note or step just right for the choir and dance. Massive mind-boggling preparations for the Christmas mega concert. All resulting in us having no time and no energy, to focus on the wrong thing anyway. In our efforts to tell the joyous message, we are spending ourselves so completely that we have nothing left with which to savor the hope and reason for Christmas ourselves.

Brothers, let's make this Christmas different. As a recurrent victim of Holiday Blues over many years of Christmas cantatas and campaigns, I plead with you. We need to. And we can. If you are racing towards the end of the year, laden with the burdens of the world, only to cry 'It is finished!' and collapse in a heap, remember this : Jesus already did that for you 2000 years ago. You don't have to repeat his act!

Receive Hope

Face it - it's been a year of win some, lose some. A fair share of accomplishments and failures. Maybe more failures than accomplishments. So what? God knows that, and loves you no less. Taking stock of the year can be discouraging. Hey, it's okay to be sad for a while - even in Christmas. But let your reflection lead you to thanksgiving, repentance and a renewed trust in God for the next chapter. God's compassion in making that journey from Heaven to emerge between the splayed legs of a teenage Mary in a smelly barn - should - a) bring me comfort (that He is with us and understands us) and b) renew my love for others (the same way God loves them).

Nourish yourself

Make time to be with good friends and loved ones. Lots of it. And preferably with good food. Be yourself and let others be themselves too. Revel in the relationships. Talk about life, laugh, and reaffirm that you are there for each other. Pick up the phone and reach the faraway. Ties to be renewed are more important than tasks to be finished. After all, the gift of loving relationships is what 'peace and goodwill to men' is all about.

Worship in rest

Above all, let our hearts be led into worship after copious doses of rest. You deserve it. Bolt the door. Snooze for as long as you like with the alarm clock off. And when you awake, in silence remember Jesus. It's just between you and Him. Offer your own version of frankincense, myrrh and gold in your own quiet way of worship. When we lift our eyes off of the world and ourselves, to set it high upon God above, we will surely find the reason beyond our little lives,.. for the season and beyond.

The Magic of Christmas

This message was delivered at Ampang Gospel Centre's Youth Christmas Night on 18 December 2004


In the latest offering by Tom Hanks, The Polar Express, a young boy’s sense of the magic of Christmas fades as he confronts the myth of Santa Claus. But in a series of neck-breaking adventures on a magical train he learns that by believing hope is restored. In Hanks’ deep and lustrous voice, the ticket collector tells him, ‘The most real things in this world can’t be seen or touched.’ Though he finally gets to see AND touch Santa it was only when he believed that the tinkling of sleigh bells could be heard again. The magic was at last restored.

Rediscovering the real magic of Christmas buried under layers of commercialism on one hand and church activity on the other is a real challenge. Christmas is a good time indeded to find hope again. To experience a miracle.

If Christmas is about restoring hope, what we do we need to believe? What have we lost the ability to hear? What do need to see and touch this Christmas? What is the REAL THING?

Follow me on a journey, not to the North Pole, but East to Bethlehem, 30BC or so to meet some shepherds and their encounter with the real thing.

Read Luke 2:8-20

Ken Gire in Moments with the Saviour, sets the stage:

‘This knot of shepherds on the fringe of Jewish society spends the night atop a stone tower, a couple of them watching the flocks while the others huddle around a fire, catching what sleep they can. Eusebius writes that this watchtower stood about a thousand paces from Bethlehem. Jewish tradition adds that the tower overlooked a special flock of sheep. Sheep set aside for sacrifices.’

The Shepherds

These were the among the few people who first beheld the baby Jesus. Who saw him and touched him as a newborn. And through history we can reach back in time to ‘see and touch’ Jesus too. The baby, whom John tells us is God in the flesh. Coming into the world between the legs of teenage girl barely able to comprehend what was going on. Not an abstract philosophy or a set of beliefs. Not a feel-good story for the year-end. He is real as flesh and blood is real.

But what made it more amazing was that these shepherds were considered an unclean people by religious law (read Lev 11:44 onwards.) They were a shunned minority encamped outside of Bethlehem. Forbidden from temple worship, anyone who touches them also becomes unclean immediately. It was no fun being a shepherd, cast out into unmarked fields and walled off from society. So how could shepherds who are unclean and unfit to come into contact with the Holy – to see and touch God in the flesh?

The Lamb

Ken Gire describes what it would’ve been like for the shepherds to meet Jesus: ‘there amid the straw, with white cloths wound so tightly around him, he looks to them like a newborn lamb… He lies there so meekly. Cradled in the most unexpected of places. Coming.. in the weakest of ways.’

These shepherds who guarded sheep set apart for sacrifices would’ve understood. For centuries, hundreds of thousands of lambs have been slaughtered to make up for the sins of the people. Animal after animal, there was no end to it. They could never truly pay for their sins. Not until this one perfect lamb. The one spotless, blameless and without blemish sent to take away the sins of the world. A perfect sacrifice by one who is without sin. This was a baby born to die. Destined to shoulder our sins and die in our place.

The baby Jesus was both the Holy One and the Lamb who will make the way for God and man to be reconciled. Beyond seeing and touching, that is what we need to believe today. Jesus came to us in flesh and blood. And it is the same flesh that will be pierced years later, on a cross. The same blood that is poured out on Calvary. He came to reach us who are unclean and by His blood make us clean.

When we look at the baby Jesus, we are looking at one, as Gire says, who is ‘Waiting for us to come, yet willing for us not to. Waiting for us to see, yet willing for us to turn away. Waiting for us to worship him, yet willing for us to renounce him… He is Christ the Lord. Yet he has placed himself at the mercy of his creation. At the mercy of strangers to take him in. At the mercy of animals to warm him. At the mercy of mortals to feed him, to protect him, to raise him…’

He invites us to come as we are – though unclean, unwanted and without hope. Stoop low into the manger to see and touch. Believe again that He has been born into our lives to save us. And listen to his unconditional love to you.

‘But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.’

Like Mary, let us fully receive and deeply rejoice in the miracle of the Holy God born into our lives. Like the shepherds let us worship in humble awe, deeply grateful for our new lives – not as the unclean and unwanted but as the Beloved and the Chosen. For that is the ‘magic of Christmas’ that we need to believe and experience for ourselves.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Finding God's Will For Your Life

This topical survey of the Bible was done and preached at HOPE EFC, Wangsa Maju on 8 October 2006. Many thanks to Hope EFC for the opportunity and challenge to search the Scriptures on this critical topic.


I spotted a book recently that suggests the world is made of two kinds of people: people who think like cats and people who think like dogs. Those who are like cats, when fed and cared for think, ‘You are nice to me, I must be God.’ Others, like dogs, however will think, ‘Since you are nice to me, you must be God.’ These two mindsets capture the two ways in which we could possibly approach guidance. When we ask, ‘What is God’s will for my life?’ are we asking to serve God, or are we making God servant to our needs? Is ‘finding God’s will’ much ado about us or much ado about God? There is a world of difference between trying to squeeze some divine sanction for our plans (and call it ‘finding God’s will’) and giving our unconditional obedience to His will.

When we pray, ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt 6:10), we declare it is His plans that we surrender our lives to and not the other way round. How we find God’s will (the authority) for our lives (which we subject to God’s will) then is the question I shall try to address.

Should I marry him/her? How do I know she’ll make a good wife/husband? Should I marry at all? What course should I study? Which job should I take? Is God calling me to full-time ministry? Which church should I go to? Is it right for me to watch this movie? Should I drive or take the bus? If I make the wrong choice, am I still in God’s will? Life is full of choices; some have more serious consequences than others and provoke great anxiety. If we’re honest, we’ve all secretly thought: Wouldn’t it be easier if God just told us what to do? After all He knows everything and how things turn out in the end. ‘What is God’s will for me?’ seems to be one of the most confusing and frustrating questions in a Christian’s life.


The Bible sympathizes with us. The psalmist in Psalm 73 was ‘grieved’ and ‘embittered’ until he realized ‘you hold me by my right hand, you guide me with your counsel’(Ps 73:22-23). The prophet Jeremiah humbly prays: ‘I know, O LORD, that a man's life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps’ (Jer 10:23).

Scripture promises God does guide and we should seek His guidance: ‘In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed.’(Ex 15:13), ‘he will be our guide even to the end’ (Ps 48:14), ‘whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it,"’ (Isa 30:21). But how does He guide us and where is He guiding us to?

Perhaps you’ve been taught, as I was, that knowing God’s will is akin to a pilot getting lights on a runway to line up. These ‘lights’, we are told, are permissive circumstances, peaceful conviction, and wise counsel and when they come together, we can proceed safely to our destination. That may be useful but only if we’re on the right plane headed to the right place! Imagine the shock if on your vacation to Sinagore, the pilot crackles the radio and announces, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying with us. The lights on the runway are lined up and we will be making our descent to Timbuktoo International Airport.’ To get both destination and path right, I believe the story of the Bible has something to teach us. The storyline of God’s history reveals how we actually got lost in the first place and how God is guiding us back to where we belong.

(Friesen in his book, ‘Decision Making and the Will of God’ describes three ‘wills’ of God – the sovereign will, moral will and individual will . The sovereign will of God is the detailed plan for all events in the universe. It is hidden and the believer cannot know and is not expected to find it. However, we cannot miss it because it always comes to pass. Though it includes both good and evil, it will ultimately lead to God’s glory. We only discover God’s sovereign will after it happens. The second, God’s moral will, is a body of commands and principles for life which believer are expected to find and obey. It was revealed to the prophets and apostles by the Spirit and is found in Scriptures. Its directives are general for all believers. Thirdly, we may speak of an ‘individual will’ that is a detailed plan for all decisions in a believer’s life which we expect to find, obey, and have failed if we miss it. It cannot be found in the Bible, and can only be revealed by impressions by the Holy Spirit. It has specific directives for specific believers. Let’s see if we can see these ‘wills’ of God featuring throughout the Bible story.)

Guidance in Eden - Perfect but Rejected

God created us in His image . The description in Genesis of man as the ‘image of God’ blessed to ‘fill the earth, subdue it, and rule.. every living creature’ (Gen 1:26-28) spells out man’s purpose as God’s representative authority on earth. Also, God commanded man to work the garden and to eat from any tree in the garden except one. Being equipped with instructions (revelation) and unbroken fellowship (relationship) with God suggests they knew God’s purpose and character so intimately as to be perfectly guided in serving Him. Still we should note two things: One, God did not dictate to them what to do but left it to them to exercise discretion as illustrated by Adam naming the animals. Two, God gave them free will to submit to or reject His rule. Sadly, ‘in eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve sought… to be morally independent of God’ . Grasping for the knowledge of good and evil meant that they were grasping for equality with God to decide right and wrong for themselves. Rejecting God’s rule, man went the way of their choice, losing God’s fellowship and His guidance with it.

Guidance in Israel - Partially Restored

God however is Sovereign – in full control of events to accomplish His purpose perfectly. (That man had access to the tree of life showed that God's will for them was, in fact, life . In spite of man’s rebellion He will accomplish it through Christ in the new heaven and earth - [compare Rev 2:7, 22:2]) Mankind plummeted down a vicious spiral of evil culminating in the Flood and the scattering at Babel. Unknown to man, God moved to restore a people of His own. He starts His plan with Abraham & Sarah and gives them descendants in spite of their barrenness. Through Joseph, He saves them from starvation in spite of scheming siblings selling him into slavery. He redeemed Israel from slavery with mighty acts, through and in spite of Pharaoh’s stubbornness. He brings them into Canaan, the new Eden flowing with milk and honey in spite of their disobedience. En route, in Sinai, God offered to them a covenant where He would be their God-King and they submitted to His rule (relationship). A nation was born and they received the Law for governance and the Tabernacle for worship. The Law revealed God’s purpose for Israel to be a representative authority in the form of a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exo 19:6) in the world. Guided by the Law (revelation) and through the prophet Moses , Israel was to ‘be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy’ (Lev 19:2) serving Him as a witness to the nations. In God’s sovereign will, God guided Israel to accomplish His purpose for them through the Law and the prophets (revelation of moral will).

(Prophets throughout the history of Israel would continue Moses’ legacy of calling for obedience, warning against judgment, leading to repentance and encouraging hope in times of distress.)
‘In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.’ Heb 1:1-2

Guidance in Christ - Complete and Final

Israel foreshadowed a greater kingdom in Christ. And where Israel failed, the Church succeeds under Christ. Christ himself preached that the ‘kingdom of heaven is near’ and he ushered it in. Through and in spite of suffering a cruel death under the hand of Pontius Pilate, Jesus triumphed to give us life, offering a new covenant in his blood (cf. Mt 26:28, Mk 14:24, Lk 22:20) - with him as Messiah (King). The Old Testament Scriptures explain the significance of Christ and foreshadowed him, while Christ fulfills and completes the Scriptures. Jesus says he did not come to ‘abolish the Law or the Prophets… but to fulfill them’(Mt 5:17, compare Lk 24:44, Jn 1:45) and he himself ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,… explained.. what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’(Lk 24:27). More than that, Christ is God’s final and perfect revelation. God ‘made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.’(2 Cor 4:6). In this new order we are no longer led by the Law but by the Spirit (cf. Rom 8:14, Gal 5:18) . So in Christ, Scripture is perfected and He is the perfect revelation of God. God guides His church now to accomplish His purpose through the revelation of Christ-perfected-Scripture and the inner witness of the Truth-teaching-Spirit.


We have seen that the Bible story frames guidance as man’s choices (individual will), worked out from revelation and relationship (moral will), but all within the sphere of God’s purpose for mankind (sovereign will). The New Testament, as we would expect, enlarges these elements in the new order and kingdom under Christ.
'And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.’ (Rom 8:28-30)

Fulfilling God's Purposes

God will achieve His purposes. ‘For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?’ (Isa 14:27) ‘God is mighty,.. and firm in His purpose’ (Job 36:5) Because God is in control, and will accomplish his purposes for us come what may - the good and bad, joys and pains, successes and failures we experience, are all raw materials in for God’s work in our lives. In God’s sovereign will, we can happily affirm ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ How events and experiences fit in God’s perfect plan is unknowable though we may get glimpses in retrospect. Will divorce, financial failure, and calamities achieve God’s purposes? Can the Tsunami and war in Iraq bring glory to God? They will in the final accounting, but only God knows how.

What then is God’s purpose(s) for us?

The first ‘great’ purpose it seems, is to know God. Jesus prayed before his betrayal, ‘Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’(Jn 17:1-3) To know Him is the greatest gift of the gospel. John Piper says in his latest book, ‘God is the Gospel’, ‘Until.. the gospel promises of justification and eternal life lead you to behold and embrace God himself as your highest joy, you have not embraced the gospel of God.’ King David in severe duress under the onslaught of his enemies cried, ‘One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.’(Ps 27:4). God was Abraham’s ‘shield’ and ‘very great reward.’ (Gen 15:1)

Incidentally it is only in knowing God that we truly know ourselves. Israel knew their belovedness (eg. Dt. 7:8) under God’s protective parenting (eg. Exo 19:4) and gentle shepherding . Today, we relate to God as sons and not slaves (Rom 8:14-16, Gal 4:6-7), we are (undeservedly) his treasured possession, precious and honored in His sight (Isa 43:4, Ex 19:5, Dt 14:2). As we see in His eyes our belovedness, much of the self-doubt and insecurity which often drives our search for ‘God’s perfect will’ quickly dissolves. The apostle John assures us: ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear,...’ (1 John 4:18)

The second great purpose for believers is to be like Christ. He predestined that ‘those God foreknew,… to be conformed to the likeness of his Son,’ (Rom 8:28-30). And so He has called us, justified us and will glorify us in order that we may be like Him. ‘He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.’(Eph 1:4). Adam & Eve bore God’s image, Israel was to be holy like their God was holy, and we are to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. We are to be ‘clothed with Christ’ taking on His character, His love, His humility.

The third is to serve Him. Adam and Eve worked the garden, Israel was to be a ‘kingdom of priests’ serving and worshipping God, and Christ ‘did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’(Mt 20:28). Paul exhorts us ‘in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.’(Rom 12:1-2) Paul asserts that it is the renewed mind that carries out God’s will, and that we only grasp the perfection of God’s will when we do it!

(But what about God’s individual will? Doesn’t God want me to be in His perfect will – marrying the right woman, having the right job, being in the right place at the right time doing the right thing? Friesen asserts that Scripture shows us that God guiding his people supernaturally giving specific instructions were exceptions to the rule. Direct guidance was given to people who had a crucial role at critical moments in history to establish His Kingdom and Word. I might add, beyond that, ‘the secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.’[Deut 29:29] What is revealed to us is what we need to make sound choices.)

Through Scriptures and the Spirit

God’s people are guided by His revelation. It is sufficient: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’(2 Tim 3:16-17). It enlightens, ‘making wise the simple’, giving ‘joy to the heart,.. light to the eyes,..’ and keeps us from ‘willful sins.’ (Ps 19:7-11). It is relevant: Peter asserts that until Christ comes again, ‘you will do well to pay attention to it [Scriptures], as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.’(2 Pet 1:19). Scriptural wisdom guides God’s image-bearers (representative authority) in exercising their God-given responsibility. We are not to be ‘like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle’ (Ps 32:9). Very often we ask for God’s will because a decision seems too difficult for us to make. We’d rather someone else made the decision for us or worse, it may be that we are trying to shirk responsibility. If things go wrong, God is to blame! (If my marriage fails, it’s because – God, you gave me this woman! Sound familiar? Blaming others is in our genes!) Instead God ‘works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.’ (Phil 2:13). Not bypassing our minds or exempting us from making decisions, we are required to understand and apply Scriptures in our choices.

But that’s not the last word. Christ has also sent us the Spirit! The Spirit helps us in understanding and applying the Scriptures. Jesus, promised that his disciples will not be orphaned but that God would ‘give you another Counselor to be with you forever - the Spirit of truth.. he lives with you and will be in you.’(Jn 14:15-17) and that he would ‘guide you into all truth… taking from what is mine and making it known to you’(Jn 16:13-14). This is the great privilege of the new order we often forget to our loss. We are not just given Scriptures to read, but the perfect revelation of Christ dwells IN US by His Spirit. We no longer encounter God second-hand through human priests but ‘by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.’(Heb 10:20-22). The Spirit lives within us to guide us in the truth of Christ and the Scriptures, and we need to cultivate practices of quiet and attentiveness to listen.

The Bible also teaches us to listen to the counsel of godly leaders, elders and our parents, but such counsel must ultimately come under the authority of Scripture.

God’s will for our lives is that we know Him, become like Him, and serve Him. Finding God’s will involves making decisions guided by Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. It seems that the first thing we need to do then is to adjust our circle of importance (what we place in the center and what we place in periphery) to better reflect God’s circle of importance and to align our plans to God’s purpose and values.

In Trust and Obedience

We do not want to be over-scrupulous, wondering if we’re in God’s will all the time. That will only lead to an obsessive compulsive disorder. God never meant for the matter of finding His will to cause us hand-wringing angst and sleepless nights. Rather obedience in what we know leads us to a quiet peace and confidence. God says: ‘"I am the LORD your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea.’(Isa 48:17-18) Similarly Jesus warns against obsessing about the minors: ‘So do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?' or `What shall we drink?' or `What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’(Matt 6:29-33) First things first!

We also do not need to know the specifics about everything at every turn! Trials help us discover who God is in our lives and define our calling. It is only in darkness that we look for the light, only when we’re lost do we find a way. Times of uncertainty and darkness are part of a believer’s journey, to refine our hope and strengthen our faith. We rejoice in suffering because suffering produces endurance, endurance character, and character, hope . The entire Hall of Fame of Hebrews 11 is about faith, the most classic description being: ‘By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.’ (Heb 11:17) We are also called to a journey with God through many unknowns, trusting Him completely who has ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you.’(Jer 29:11) Allow for some mystery!


In the final analysis, I think the hardest choices are not about what to do and where to go. Choices are hard because I am fundamentally a rebel, rejecting God’s rule from the very beginning. The tug-of-war between my desires and God’s purpose will continue make us miserable until we crucify self-will at the Cross. Jesus died that we may be free from our sinful selves. When we take the cup and the bread, we reaffirm that we died with Christ (Rom 6:8-11). Realising this, Merton wrote: ‘To belong to Him is to be free, free of all the anxieties and worries and sorrows that belong to this earth, and the love of the things that are in it…. The only thing that mattered was the fact of the sacrifice, the essential dedication of one's self, one's will. The rest was only accidental’

Life should be as exciting as a mystery novel or thriller movie – you know it’s going to have a great ending but you’re kept guessing how it gets there. And God isn't about to spoil it for us with horoscope-like answers. Every bit of life is precious – the ups and the downs, the good and the bad, the day and the night – let’s not trade them for quick answers.

God is more interested in us knowing Him, becoming like Him and loving Him than in getting every detail of life ‘perfectly right’. And until we get to heaven, let us live each day and face each struggle as Christ did at Gethsemane, in the worst of struggles, saying: ‘Not my will, but Yours be done.’(Lk 22:42)

G.Friesen and J.R. Maxson, Decision Making and the Will of God, 1980. Lancer
J.Piper, God is the Gospel, 2005. IVP
T.Merton, Magnetic North. In McDonnell TP, ed. A Thomas Merton Reader. New York:Doubleday, 1989, pg 132

Friday, September 22, 2006

What is Worship?

'WHAT IS WORSHIP?' was delivered at a Seminar on Worship and Musicians’ Workshop at Kota Bharu Baptist Church, on 2 September 2006.

INTRODUCTION – Worship in Spirit and Truth

If a first-year junior were to ask you, ‘What do I need to know to have a meaningful experience of university here in Kota Bharu?’ how would you answer? You may proceed to tell him where to eat, or list the best beaches in the East Coast. You may tell him how to get cheap AirAsia tickets, or if you are a kaki-ponteng like I was, guide the junior as to which classes to skip for more sleep. But, being the responsible senior you would most probably guide the junior on the best books to use, which lectures to pay close attention to, and what to expect in the exams. Because you know unless a student fulfills his primary purpose in university – to master the course and ace the exams – no amount of Thai food or sandy beaches will make a good university experience.

What do we need to know to have meaningful experience of worship? Musical skills? Good singing? Nice melodies? I suggest that unless we understand the primary purpose for worship, our experience of worship will be shallow at best. We may enjoy the music or get a good feeling from singing, but never encounter the living God or understand our relationship with Him. What is worship? How should we worship? Should we clap, should we dance, can we use rock music or should we sing only hymns?

Read John 4:21-24

Jesus’s response goes straight to the heart of worship. Firstly it is spiritual. The nature of our worship corresponds to the nature of the One we worship – God is spirit, so we worship in spirit.. Because He did not reveal himself to us in any physical form, so worship is not to any physical images but with our hearts and words we worship the Unseen God1. Any form of worshipping images, statues, paintings are excluded. Secondly it is in truth. While we can fool others by enthusiastic singing or playing, we can’t fool God who knows our hearts. But more than just being truthful we are to worship IN the truth – knowing who we worship, who we are before God, and how He relates to us as revealed in the Bible must form the framework for our worship.


The Bible has a particular version of human history that tells the story God and man. If I may try to summarize the story of the Bible this way: God creates the Universe and puts man in charge under him but man rebels and loses this perfect relationship. Sin and pride increases and climaxes with terrible judgment in the Flood and dispersion at Babel. Then God chooses one man, Abraham, to kick-start his salvation plan for mankind. Through Abraham comes a nation who is the stage for the Saviour who finally comes to save mankind by dying on the cross for us. We can trace the origin and evolution of worship as we run through this history.

Made for Worship (Man in Eden)

In Eden, we see a perfect relationship and work. In six ‘days’ God created the heavens and earth and on the 7th day He rested. Every one of those days had a ‘morning and evening’ but the seventh day has no end. Six eras of creation past, the seventh age is one of REST. And mankind was brought into existence into this rest2 - enjoying creation and perfect fellowship with God the Creator. As God’s representative authority (i.e. image) on earth, we serve God by taking care of this earth. In the Garden was unbroken fellowship and joyful service to God. We can say we were made for worship.

(Rest is a theme that will be played out throughout the Bible till Revelations. Man loses this rest because of sin. Israel partially regains it in the Promised Land3. But finally Jesus gives us rest from our sin and striving4, from our alienation from God, a rest we re-enter by faith in Christ5, and will fully enjoy in the new heaven and earth6. Also, man, created in God’s image, we are told, were made to ‘rule and subdue’ the earth unlike any other creature7.)

Saved to Worship (Israel at Sinai)

The Israelites were saved from Egypt, (it is said 8 times in Exodus) so that ‘they may worship’8 God at Sinai. God chose a people for himself, redeemed them from slavery in Egypt, and gave birth to a nation with the goal of worshipping him again – enjoying fellowship and serving Him. At Sinai, it becomes interesting. A disorganized group in the desert were shaped into a nation under a God-king (theocracy). A constitution-like Ten Commandments and a legislation comprising moral, civil, and ceremonial codes are given. Together with that are detailed instructions on how to build and conduct worship at the Tabernacle. Can we learn anything about Christian worship from the way Israel was taught it?

The method for worship was with five major offerings9 – the burnt offering, grain offering, fellowship offering, sin offering and guilt offering – were prescribed. The sin and guilt offerings atoned for sins and ritual uncleanness. The grain offering showed thanksgiving, and the fellowship offering, a meal shared by priest and family in the presence of God, signified fellowship. The burnt offering accompanied atoning sacrifices but also signified dedication and surrender, a ‘pleasing aroma to God’, which was kept burning continuously. In their execution10 animals were slaughtered after laying hands on them, indicating substitution, and life-containing blood11 poured out – showing a penalty paid to turn away God’s wrath. The need for these sacrifices emphasizes God’s holiness, man’s sinfulness, and the crucial need for atonement. The order of sacrifices when carried out12 – sin offering-burnt offering-fellowship offering – shows that worship culminated in fellowship with God. With repentance and forgiveness, consecration and God’s acceptance, relationship is restored and maintained by the sacrifices. Worship begins with repentance, followed by surrender and finally a celebration of peace and fellowship with God. (The way it was in Eden, I might add.)

(The place for worship was the Tabernacle. Built according to detailed instructions, God dwelt among His people in the central chamber called the Most Holy Place. No one approached the Holy God except the sanctified High Priest bearing the blood of the sin offering once a year on the Day of Atonement. The High Priest would sprinkle the blood on the atonement-cover that stood between the Holy God and the Law in the ark. The Book of the Law was also housed there as a witness against them.)

In Christ we Worship

With the benefit of the New Testament we understand now that the sacrificial system was imperfect, and while it served the nation Israel at the time, it foreshadowed and was perfected by Christ and Christ alone. Christ is the sin offering who ‘died outside the city gates’ and whom God sent to ‘condemn sin in sinful man’13. He is the lamb without defect, the guilt offering who died to redeem us and cleanse our conscience14. He is the ‘pleasing aroma’15 that satisfies God all the time. Christ embodies every aspect of the sacrifices, fulfilling what it foreshadowed, and perfected it. Christ is the perfect, sinless, life-for-life substitute and His sacrifice is once for all making sinners perfect in God’s sight, ending all sacrifices16

Previously only the priest could conduct sacrifices, and even then he needed first to be cleansed. But today, ‘we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus,.. by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith..’17 Christ is himself the ‘mercy seat’ and the ‘atoning sacrifice’18 of the Tabernacle. In the language of John’s gospel, Christ has ‘tabernacled’19 with us, abiding even in our hearts by the Spirit. He is, as the furnishings of the Tabernacle presaged, the ‘bread of life’, ‘water welling up to eternal life’, and the ‘light of the world ‘20.

Just as the sacrifices were central to Israel’s worship, mediating atonement, consecration and fellowship, Christ is the center of our worship, our atoning sacrifice21, making us perfect and holy in his sight22, and Christ ushers us into His presence to enjoy peace23. Relationship is restored and maintained by Christ! It is through Christ and His work alone that we have access and we worship God.

(And because of Christ’s merciful work we are exhorted to offer up our bodies as living sacrifices24 (as opposed to the dead ones in the OT), and our words as sacrifices of praise25 - the only sacrifices left for us!)


Our Attitude

The Greek have many words that have been translated to worship and praise in the Bible. Words for worship are latreuo (to serve), sebomai (to revere), and proskyneo (to bow down to). Words for praise are aineo (to praise for a work), epaineo (to commend for qualities or works), eulogeo (to bless or speak well of), exomologeomai (to confess) and doxazo (to give glory to). Worship celebrates the relationship we have with God, delighting in Him just as God delights in His people. In worship we bow deeply and humbly to the Holy One, who is above all things. He is the Absolute Reality, self-existent, and self-sustaining, ruling over Created Reality. When we celebrate God in this way, our hearts are fired up and imagination is captured to contemplate the God from whom we derive our existence. He is our very Source – He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care26. We are creatures of worship – if we fail to worship God, we will bow to other things and become its slave instead. But when we worship God, we find perfect freedom.

In All of Life

It may come as a surprise to you that the word worship is never once used in the NT to describe Christian activity in churches. Most likely, church leaders were steering away from temple-based worship of the Old Testament since, as we have seen, Christ inaugurated a new order and made obsolete the old rituals.27 More importantly, the worship in the new order meant it is no longer bound to a particular time and place. A revolution has taken place. God no longer dwells in a human tent but indwells every believer and the body of Christ is the new ‘temple’. We approach God no more through a priest but directly and confidently by the blood of Jesus. We have immediate and continuous access to God through Christ and we can worship God freely all the time!

Worship has in a sense broken free from the boundaries of the OT tabernacle to now engulf all of time, space, and our entire lives. The writer of Hebrews declares, that Christ has achieved eternal redemption, entering the Most Holy Place by his own blood, ‘so that we may serve [latreuo] the living God!’28. Unhindered. And unencumbered. Paul asserts: ‘offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship.’29 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in everything we do we shall worship God. This is the great paradigm shift of the New Covenant that we must embrace – the sacred institution of worship overflowing as it were boundlessly into the whole experience of life.

(To speak of a church meeting as ‘time for worship’, ‘worship meeting’ or ‘coming together to worship’, and to call someone a ‘worship leader’ can be misleading if we forget this: Worship is all the time, and all time is worship.)

Expressed Together

With the background of an all-encompassing worship as a lifestyle, when Christians gather to read the Word, pray, or sing, we are expressing our worship through the vehicles of words and songs. On one hand we receive God’s Word and the Sacraments – reminding ourselves of God’s holiness and greatness as well as His mercy and sacrificial love. (Hence Bible reading and good preaching is essential, and adequate preparation of the heart is vital. We are also told to ‘teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.’30 Paul recognizes that the songs we sing are a powerful medium of instruction. We teach one another as we sing!) On the other hand we respond with prayer and praise – expressing our deepest, heartfelt response of remorse over our sins, thankfulness for His mercy, praise for His greatness, surrender to His Lordship, adoring Him and delighting in His love. (Hence orderly and well-conducted services are vital.) Oh, that our worship will grow – both the sacrifice our bodies as well as fruit of our lips. May we live such worshipful lives so that our praise is so much more meaningful, and may we sing so passionately as to overflow into all our living.


We were made for worship – to enjoy God’s fellowship and glorify Him in joyful service. We are, as Israel was, redeemed and saved to worship. Christ restores and maintains our fellowship with Him through His perfect atoning sacrifice. Breaking all boundaries, worship engulfs our entire lives so that we may worship him in the totality of our lives. Such truths must compel us also to worship Him exuberantly as a congregation. Until when in heaven we will with every tribe and nation fall before His throne and worship31:

Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.

1 Deut 4:15-16
2 Gen 2:2-3
3 Deut 12:10, Jos 1:13
4 Matt 11:29
5 Heb 4:9-11
6 Rev 14:13
7 Gen 1:28
8 Exo 3:12, 4:23, 7:16, 8:1, 8:20, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3
9 Lev 1:1-6:7
10 Lev 6:8-7:38
11 Lev 17:11, Gen 9:4
12 Lev 9:1-24, Lev 16
13 Heb 10:10, 10:19, 13:10-11, Rom 8:3
14 Isa 53:10, Heb 9:13-14; 1Pe 1:19
15 Eph 5:2
16 Heb 10:10-14
17 Heb 10:19-22
18 Rom 3:25
19 John 1:14
20 John 6:35, John 4:14, John 8:12
21 Rom 3:25, 1 Jn 2:2, 4:10
22 Heb 10:10-14
23 Rom 5:1-2
24 Rom 12:1
25 Heb 13:15
26 Ps 95:6-7
27 Heb 9:10
28 Heb 9:14
29 Rom 12:1
30 Col 3:16, Eph 5:19
31 Rev 7:9-12

Monday, June 05, 2006

Journeying from Eden to Heaven

'Journeying from Eden to Heaven' was delivered at the Headstart Leaders' Spiritual Retreat, 16-18 September 2005. It is part 4 in a series of 4 reflections under the title 'Come Away With Me'.

Medical textbooks are rife with definitions of pain. The American Society of Anesthesiologists define it as an unpleasant sensory or emotional experience, associated with actual or potential damage, or described in the terms of such damage. You mean like a slap in the face, or a dagger in the heart? Nice.

Life is painful. There is no escaping it. At best we are making things bearable. Antibiotics, air-conditioning, clean water – all have made living a little better, but there is no running away from the pain of being alive.

Since the day we were expunged from Eden, nothing about being alive is pain-free. We have lost the the easy care-free joy of abundance, and enjoying all of creation as a gift – everything we need we have to sweat and bleed for. We no longer enjoy the unbroken fellowship with our Creator, and all our relationships are marred with jealousy, anger, self-centred demands. The same fallen people populate churches, so it is no mystery that we have problems there, if not more glaringly so. But though we have been banished from Eden, Eden has never left our bosoms. We will always be homesick for a better reality and our best technology and psychotherapy will not end suffering.

Every day is painful – waking up is hard, clients are hard, bosses are worse. Small things hurt us – a snigger, an unreturned phone call, unreciprocated smile. Just when we thought we got things together, something big comes along and whops us on the side of the head – a close relative dies, you crash your car, a lawyer sends you a threatening letter. Shit happens. Murphy’s law works overtime. If we are honest with ourselves, though, the greatest pain of all is loneliness. And we are all lonely. Deeply, achingly, intractably lonely.

None of our aspirations for spiritual advancement get very far because all our neat formulas and plans simply fall apart. Our progress is derailed. Our attentions are diverted to self-preservation. Our joy is sapped and life becomes dreary and mere survival is all we can hope for.

As a physician, I appreciate what pain does for the patient. Without it, patients would never turn up to have their medical condition investigated. The pattern of pain tells us the likely cause. And pain gives us a useful way to monitor the severity of the problem and how it's responding to our treatment.

I can see two major schools of thought in approaching psychological/emotional pain in Christian circles. One – is to deny it, steel yourself with verses about faith and the pure joy of trials and march on like good Christian soldiers singing ‘It’s a happy day’ all the way. Crabb remarks: ‘common in fundamentalist circles, (this approach) crushes the soul under the weight of academic truth and proud obedience.’ The second – is to palliate it. Find every possible means to relieve our pain. Indulge our desires, enjoy the creaturely comforts, furnish our homes with pretty things and taste the best this world has to offer. Neither are in touch with reality. No amount of denial will take away suffering, and no amount of partying will satisfy our hungers.

Larry Crabb in his insightful book, ‘Finding God’, shows us we have a choice to make: either we try to rebuild/recapture Eden in our lives, or make our pilgrimage towards Heaven. He contrasts Lamech and Enoch, both the 7th generation progeny of Cain and Abel. He says:
‘Lamech declared: “I will build my city! I want my pleasures now.” Enoch said: “I will build God’s kingdom! And trust God to one day build a city for me to enjoy.” Because God cares deeply about his children, many times he chooses to relieve our suffering and solve our problems. But because his love is.. rooted in what he knows is best for us, he provides us with something more interesting to live for than ourselves. He catches us up in the supernatural reality of living for an eternal kingdom.’

David Seamands tells us to 'choose our pain' - the pain of grumbling and fighting it, or the pain of understanding it and allowing God to do his healing work and propel us towards heaven. Henri Nouwen suggests that we turn pain from an enemy into a friend. Instead of pouring all our efforts into eliminating pain as quickly as possible, we can befriend it, listen to it, and let it speak to us of our deepest need and of God's presence in our pain. That way, both our highest pleasures and deepest pain point us forward to God and Heaven. A fantastic Mamak Rojak or Thai dish becomes a foretaste of glory, driving me forward, not an obsession with the world, cementing my feet in a perishing world. The most teeth-grinding of hurts and frustrations propel me to look further, they become engines of growth and not excuses for narcissistic self massage.

C.S. Lewis once said: ‘If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.’ We have a greater purpose than fixing this life, it is to know God and enjoy Him. Pardon for our sin is more important than immediate healing for our pain. The chief end of man is to glorify him, it is not the chief end of God to gratify man. Our focus must shift from finding ourselves or making life better, to finding God who is constantly chasing after us.

The lessons of David and Job teach us that. Pain is the ever-present vehicle that drives us to our God. The equation is not about how much pain we suffered vs how much relief/deliverance we received. It is about how much of our unbelief is eroded and how much of God we come to know for ourselves. But these lessons begin with brutal honesty. We must dare to ask, ‘Where are you God when it hurts? What kind of God are you to allow this kind of pain in my life? Why should I worship you?’ Who knows how he will answer you.

The invitation to ‘Come… with me by yourselves and rest for awhile’ is repeated over and over again in our lives – that we find rest. Rest from the abdicating distractions and anxieties of the world. Rest from the paralyzing sins of our past. Rest from the illusions of who we really are. Yet our ultimate rest is in heaven – where there will be no weeping or crying. Every little Sabbath we take is a small step towards the great Sabbath Rest. And while this journey is often bitterly painful, it is precisely this pain that drives us forward and enlarges our hearts for the Lover of our souls.

Reflection & Dialog:
1. What are the biggest sources of pain in your life?
2. What do they tell you about yourself, your needs, your passions/commitments?
3. Come to God with your pain and speak honestly with Him about it.

Part 1 - The Tragedy of Restlesness
Part 2 - Coming into the Present
Part 3 - Return to the True Self
Part 4 - Journeying from Eden to Heaven

Return to the True Self

'Return to the True Self' was delivered at the Headstart Leaders' Spiritual Retreat, 16-18 September 2005. It is part 3 in a series of 4 reflections under the title 'Come Away With Me'.

While we reenter the present in terms of time and place, we also need to come back to our true selves in person. We are getting ourselves reoriented in time, place and person, so to speak. The reason is if we are not ourselves, who are we, and how can we relate to God from a false substitute? The true self remains restless to be found.

We are often so caught up in pleasing our clients, our bosses, our spouses, and our parents that we don’t know why we do what we do anymore. We lose ourselves to the opinion of others. The demands of making it has put us on a treadmill of improving our salary, investing in our security, and amassing things – from little trinkets and gadgets to houses and cars. We have become what we own. We pride ourselves in our abilities to lead, manage, produce results – we soon become what we can do.

The false self, or ‘old man’ of the Bible, is the who we are apart from God. From birth, our existence is marred with pain and loneliness. However, as we grow up, the wrong message is unintentionally whispered in to us: ‘If you… I will love you…’ If we finish our food, our parents will love us. If we do well in school, they will love us. If we go to university and succeed in life, the will love us. If I own the swankiest bike, my friends will love me. If I show great leadership, my colleagues will adore me. Advertisements and billboards scream to us: ‘Buy this, do that, look good, you haven’t truly lived until…’ And so it goes on and on throughout life till our entire person is constructed on these things.

We have lost our true selves on the altar of popularity, possessions and power. Our true inner man who IS, complete and real, apart from any of these external things have been snuffed out when we exchange our true identity with these things.

How do we now unlearn and deconstruct the very fabric our lives. How do we reclaim our authenticity and personhood? How do we come home from floating around as ghosts pleasing others, amassing things, and trying to do greater things?

The before and after of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is instructive:
Forty days of starvation and desolation, Jesus was vulnerable. When we are lonely and weary, we want to feed ourselves with things, with affection, and with power.

When the devil tempted Jesus to turn stone into bread, He rejected it saying, ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ To grab for our material needs apart from God is to deny that all creation is God’s and a gift to us. When we give in, we make the pursuit of things greater than the pursuit of the Creator. We want our worth in things we can see.

When the devil tempted Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world, with authority and splendor, here was a quick means to popularity – Jesus could build his empire and have the world worship him at his feet. He replied, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’ We want our worth in what people think of us. But for Jesus only how the Father looks to him mattered, the opinion of others/the world was meaningless.

Finally, Jesus was tempted to display His greatness once and for all by free-fall diving and a supernatural stunt in view of the whole city. If am God’s Son, and I am loved as He says I am, I will surely be delivered in spectacular fashion! But Jesus replied: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ There was absolutely no need to prove himself and his worth in God’s eyes. We want our worth in the power we have, in our abilities and achievements – Jesus saw his worth only in the Father’s eyes.

We need to recover our real identity of the Beloved, who IS, in the safe place of God’s presence. Jesus shows us how. Before the temptation, God had spoken in a voice at the Jordan: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ And this was way before he had done anything. He was a mere carpenter’s son who had not even preached his first sermon, healed his first sick, or performed any miracles. Experiencing our belovedness and seeing our true selves in God’s eyes makes us complete, lacking nothing.

Secondly, even IN the wilderness – when the euphoria has faded, when there was no one to affirm us, no things to remind us of what we have, no support base to encourage us – Jesus quoted Scripture. Basil Pennington says: ‘Here we have an antidote to the false self: a daily feeding, a steady immersion into the Word of God. When we are daily fed by the Word of God, when it nourishes us and nurtures us, it forms our mind and heart in the Truth. It uncovers and peels away, one by one, the deceptions of the false self. It grounds us in the Truth and enables us to discern, in the light of that Truth our true selves in.. our relationship with God…’

If the institution of the Sabbath teaches us anything it is this: we ARE complete and fully alive, even apart from our work. We can assure ourselves that when we stop – we don’t cease from existing, we don’t cease to live. When God stopped on the 7th day, He did not cease to be the God he was before he created. When Jesus refused the things, power and popularity offered by Satan, he didn’t cease to be the Beloved. I AM, and I can JUST BE. Just Be-ing is a lost art today. Solitude helps us restore our identity apart from work. The more we are able to let go, the more of God we can have, and the less of things do we need!

The key is to replace our false self-view with God’s true view of us. Accepting God’s acceptance of us is a lifetime of unlearning and relearning. Being authentic with one another, embracing our ordinariness, not trying to be someone else – we bloom and find joy in who we are, warts and pimples all the same. In stillness and in God’s presence we can truly say: ‘Nothing is important, I need nothing else – only God. Only God.’

Reflection and Dialog:
1. How important is others’ opinion of you – in the workplace, at home, in church?
2. What are some things you feel you must have or achieve to be have ‘made it’?
3. What steps will you take to find the Sabbath-Rest?

Part 1 - The Tragedy of Restlesness
Part 2 - Coming into the Present
Part 3 - Return to the True Self
Part 4 - Journeying from Eden to Heaven

Coming into the Present

'Coming into the Present' was delivered at the Headstart Leaders' Spiritual Retreat, 16-18 September 2005. It is part 2 in a series of 4 reflections under the title 'Come Away With Me'.

One of the reasons we are REST-LESS, is that we are often not in the present. We are too caught up regretting the past and worrying about the future that we cannot live in the present moment. We may be reading our Bible or praying, but our hearts are somewhere else – the unsolved problems at work, the difficulties in your relationships, etc.

The first question God ever asked Adam & Eve after they sinned, was: ‘Where are you?’ Shame over the past and fear of the future abdicates our souls from the present. We are no longer able to live in the present and we have been fleeing God ever since. They could not ‘walk with God in the cool of the evening’ as they used to.

How can we possibly enter God’s rest, if we are not even here? God is in the present, God is here, and we can only meet Him here and now. How much of our life is wasted being all over the place, bouncing back and forth between the past and the future, but never settling in the present?

Coming away with Jesus means to enter into the present and to enlarge the moment. We have to be able to let go of the past and stop worrying about the future and come to God, saying: ‘I am here.’ When we are in touch with the Eternal One, time seems to stop for us, and we step out of time for a while. Time then is no longer about minutes and hours but about love and meaning.

Henri Nouwen in his book, ‘Here and Now’, says: ‘the real enemies of our life are the “oughts” and the “ifs.” They pull us backward into the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future. But real life takes place in the here and the now. God is a God of the present. God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful or painful.’

But how do we let go of the past? The past is full of regrets. Things we should’ve done and should not have done. The shame of our sins cripples us, and we are filled with self-loathe or imprisoned in self-hate. When we hate ourselves we will hate the world. When we can’t forgive ourselves we can’t forgive anyone else. The past continues to haunt us.

The really good news of the good news is that there is a way out. When David kept silent, his bones wasted away. Guilt festered, his loneliness intensified, and the anguish was destroying him. He said: ‘When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD"-- and you forgave the guilt of my sin.’ (Psalm 32:3).

The key to freedom is disclosure and forgiveness. Receiving forgiveness enables us to forgive others. That is the point of the parable of the unforgiving slave (Matt 18:23-30).When we have been given unlimited forgiveness, we can also freely forgive. Canceling others’ debts to us is a choice we make, and sometimes a long-drawn process, but it is for our freedom that we release others. We certainly need more grace in our churches – we need help relieve the burden of Christian perfectionism, and not find ways to replace the sting of death with more guilt and legalism.

The uncertainties of the future paralyse us through fear. We are afraid – of failing, of losing something or someone. But Jesus insists that the ‘anxieties and worries’ of this life only choke us. They will asphyxiate our lifeline with God and retard our progress spiritually until we face our fears. David devotes countless psalms to fear – often for his own life, over injustice, betrayal, false witness, and even God’s judgement. But each time, he finds deliverance in the goodness of God and ‘taking refuge’ (over 43 times). Pride keeps us from ‘humbling ourselves,’ and ‘casting our anxieties on Him.’ (1 Pet 5:6-7)

Finally, we need to cultivate a sense of awareness. We learn that the only time we can experience life and God is now. We reenter the moment. With simple disciplines we learn to be aware of ourselves and God who has always been there. We learn to breathe again. Chew our food. Smell the grass. Let the simplest day-to-day experiences arrest us and penetrate our beings with the Presence of God that is there. We need only to come home into the present.

Reflection and dialog:
1. What deep regrets, hurts or fears do you have? How do they impair your relationship with God?
2. Confess, receive His forgiveness and ask for grace to forgive those who have wronged you.
3. Have there been moments that when you felt God’s immanent presence? Share that moment.

Recommended Reading: Here and Now, Living in the Spirit by Henri Nouwen

Part 1 - The Tragedy of Restlesness
Part 2 - Coming into the Present
Part 3 - Return to the True Self
Part 4 - Journeying from Eden to Heaven

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Tragedy of Restlesness

"The Tragedy of Restlesness" was delivered at the Headstart Leaders' Spiritual Retreat, 16-18 September 2005. It is part 1 in a series of 4 reflections under the title 'Come Away With Me'.

If I were to ask you to just rest and do nothing all of today, what will you do? Grab a newspaper, turn on the TV, logon the web, maybe do some shopping or balance your accounts? If I told you, your food & clothing for all of this year is taken care of – what will you do with your life? Book a holiday? Climb the Himalayas? Read all the books you’ve bought in the last year? The tragedy of our ultra-modern life is there simply is no time for rest, and even if there was – we no longer know how to.

Our culture is such that we are constantly distracted – by ads, news flashes, SMS-es, latest movie releases, etc. We have made life so zippingly fast-paced, that we can’t catch up with ourselves any more. Anything we do, buy, read today is obsolete by the time we lay hands on it – somebody is inventing something better right now, a new discovery is being published today, the way you operate has been superceded by a smarter method. Sadly, though we are so breathless playing catch-up trying to stay focussed we no longer know what is rest much less how to get it.

At a time when we need to recover our humanity and meaning the most, we are swept away by a tide of artificial substitutes. Hollywood, MTV, the tourism and food industry make sure of that. What entertainment and every kind of sensual indulgence offers is a quick-fix, temporary relief, fleeting moments of pleasurable but imaginary escape which leaves us only more hungry, empty and lonely than before. But then, we’ve got to get back to work – who has time to think about it?

In a similar situation of exhaustion and starvation, Jesus, recognising the urgent need for recovery and nourishment intervened:
‘"Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest a while." (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.) And they went away in the boat to a lonely place
by themselves. (Mark 6:31-32, NASB)’

I love the passage for what it doesn’t say as much as what it does. Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Go away for awhile and come back ready to work again.’ He doesn’t send you away only when you are fatigued beyond use, and for the sole purpose of rehabilitating the workforce. And it isn’t one of those company motivation and indoctrination retreats just to make you more aggressive and productive.

The invitation is threefold: it is to ‘come away’ (NASB) – drawing away/detaching ourselves from the work when it has become damaging to the soul. Work itself is not the enemy, it is when work has overtaken the heart that perspective sorely needs to be restored. There are warning signs and we must learn to recognise them.

Secondly it is to ‘come with me’ (NIV) – a leaving of the things that have robbed you of your inner joy and tunneled your spiritual vision, to return to the real heart, purpose and goal of our lives, Jesus.

And thirdly, for a good reason: ‘they had no leisure so much as to eat’ (KJV). No leisure, so much as to eat! This rendition in the KJV makes a sharp point and Maslow would be quick to point out – that if the disciples were so consumed by the work they couldn’t even eat, you can imagine how spiritually and emotionally starved they must have already become.

We will explore in further sessions this important invitation. What are the things that erodes our lives, keeping us from our true identity and a growing intimacy with God?

In the face of massive opposition and danger, David says: ‘One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,’ but if he can’t get that, he’ll settle for just one day. ‘Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.’ (Psalm 84:10, NIV). He makes the difficult choice of choosing, like Mary, ‘the better thing.’

In my final year of Masters, I suffered a serious health problem. I was so stressed from working on my final dissertation, and studying for the exit exams, and leading a church, and speaking in the student CF, I developed peptic ulcer disease that required large doses of opioids for pain-relief. In that difficult period going through gastroscopies, ultrasounds and drug therapy – I discovered I also had gallstones and fatty deposits in the liver. I was obese, and the repressed stress had been burning away at my stomach lining. I was forced to work through the deeper issues at work. By God’s grace and much, much love from my wife and others around me, I soon realised I was chronically depressed, easily irritable, quietly bitter and prone to rage. Compulsive overeating was one of the complications of my masked depression. Coming to terms with my adrenaline addiction and stress-burnout pattern, I learnt some crucial skills for early recognition and intervention. The first few months were tough-going, subjecting myself to rigid monitoring and journaling my feelings, but in time the hard labor bore fruits of much peace, improved relationships, and best of all – I lost 20kgs of weight!

You may not have come to such serious consequences of stress-burnout in your life, but we all need to learn the skills of recognizing it, hearing Jesus’ invitation to ‘come away’ and give ourselves permission to rest. We need to move from denial, through anger (blaming everyone else for our restlessness), to acceptance (that we need rest), to change (taking responsibility for getting rest.)

Reflection and dialog:
1. Have you suffered burnout recently?
2. What steps led to it? What were its consequences for you?
3. Were there early signs of stress and burnout for you?
4. What steps do you need to take to ‘give yourself permission’ to rest – do you have difficulty doing that?

Recommended reading: Unmasking Male Depression, by Archibald D. Hart

Part 1 - The Tragedy of Restlesness
Part 2 - Coming into the Present
Part 3 - Return to the True Self
Part 4 - Journeying from Eden to Heaven

Monday, May 22, 2006

Pride and Humility

This sermon was delivered at Ampang Gospel Centre on 21 May 2006

‘There is perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive. Even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility. - Benjamin Franklin, from his autobiography.

We are all familiar with the wise sayings: ‘Pride Comes Before A Fall’, or ‘The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall’ warning us not to get ahead of ourselves. The proverbial squirrel who ‘Pandai pandai… melompat, akhirnya jatuh ke bumi jua’ reminds us not to be too clever. As an obese 12-yr old, I once heard my headmaster speak aloud his wish that our school badminton team might win an inter-school tournament. I stupidly muttered, ‘Fat Hopes!’ Disgusted, he looked me in the eye and said, ‘It is you who are fat. They are the hope.’ I was duly humbled.

But what is pride really? How are we set free from pride? Is it even possible in this lifetime?

Pride vs Humility

Paul exhorts us to ‘do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.’

The Bible has many words for pride in various contexts -primarily in relation to God but also with man. Collectively they describe the nature of pride, its consequences and its relation to sin. To be proud is to have a presumptuous self-confidence – I can do everything on my own. A refusal to consider God or others – it doesn’t matter what God says or what others think, a failure to respond to God – when God calls or instructs we refuse Him. To deny that we are created beings before a Creator – we put ourselves at the center of the Universe, everything revolves around me. To deny the authority of the Word and an insensitivity to others – who cares how others feel, as long as I am satisfied.

Pride results in disgrace – how often have been humiliated by something we said or did when we refused the advise of others. In quarrels – it could be argued that every fight starts with stubbornly sticking to our own opinion and not considering others’ views. Destruction, jealousy, anger, factions, slander, and gossip or many others. Pride is the root of sin when Adam and Eve decided they knew better than God and went against His prescribed orders. Satan is Satan because in pride he wanted to be God himself. Paul teaches us in Romans that we degenerate into ever increasing sin because we first disavow God and refuse to bow to the Creator. The ultimate result is death and judgment.

Deut 1:42-43 is a fitting illustration. We read that the Israelites practically march OUT of the will of God and into destruction. Every act of pride is exactly like that - walking out of the good and perfect will of God, persisting in our own way, and ending up in trouble.

Humility is the exact opposite. To be humble is to respond to God immediately, to recognize His authority, to have a childlike dependence and responsiveness to God, to honor others before ourselves and to look to others interests. The consequences of humility is honor and wisdom. Jesus humility was the root of His obedience taking up the Cross. And the result of our humbling ourselves before God is to be saved. Pride and humility are opposites and mutually exclusive so that they cancel out one another.

Mission Impossible

Because Christ has saved us, we are called to be ‘transformed in our minds’. In Romans 12:1-2, we are told to ‘be not conformed to the world, but be transformed in our minds so that we may test and approve what is the good and perfect will of God.’ In the same passage we are told not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, and to honor others before ourselves.

How are we to be transformed from an attitude of pride to one of humility? Shall we work at it – let’s BE HUMBLE. Screw up our resolve and perform great acts of humility? Shall we say, From today onwards I will be the humblest person in church. I will come one hour earlier and arrange all the chairs and sweep the floor every week. I will always speak lowly of myself, and praise everybody else. Everytime someone praises me I will screw up my face in this pathetic, meek form and keep saying, ‘O it was not me, it was God. Praise God only. Hallelujah.’ And what do we expect at the end of that great performance, ‘The Humblest Christian of The Month Award’?

Sometimes we resort to such shallow attempts at humility and they betray the fact that ‘attaining humility’ is a paradox, impossible apart from God.

Notice how both in the passage from Philippians and Romans, Paul doesn’t tell us to strive at being humble.

Humility simply cannot be gained by trying. It is unattainable in the sense that you cannot strive for it like you train for a race. The harder you try, the more proud you become. The moment you think, ‘maybe today I am humbler’, you have just thought a proud thought. Humility is not achieved, it emerges through the death of self. Because pride is the over-expression of SELF above God and others, humility can only emerge in the undoing of SELF. Have you ever TRIED to go to sleep? Have you noticed that the harder you try – count sheep, think serene thoughts, relax your body, whatever – the harder it takes to sleep? Paradoxically humility, like sleep comes without you trying but by letting go.

Humility also cannot happen in a vacuum. In fact it has no meaning apart from a relationship. We are humble UNTO someone – to God and to people around us. Humility abdicates the throne, and moves away from being in the center. God and others take priority over ourselves. The Way of Humility is best learnt in Christ’s example.

The Way of Christ

Paul in Phil 2:1-11, exhorts the Philippians to ‘do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves’ and points to Christ. ‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ,' he says. If we are to learn humility, it is to walk the way of Christ. What were those attitudes? Those orientations that defined the whole way Christ lived and died? It seems to me to be summed up in these three declarations. ‘He made himself nothing,’ ‘taking on the very nature of a servant,’ and ‘became obedient to death’.

‘He made himself nothing.’ He emptied himself of every right and privilege accorded to man, much less the honors of being God. Our entire journey on earth may be just for the undoing of the Self-Centred Self. Until we become thoughtless about ourselves. When we no longer have a need to consider ourselves and fret about every hair in place, every button, every step. O how miserable is a life filled with self-concern and self-obsession. Jesus spoke rightly about the anxieties of this world choking us. Haven’t we tasted ineffable joy when our every thought and concern was for another? When we became lost in the love for someone else and my own small world became unimportant, if just for a second? He considered not equality with God something to be grasped – He who rightly is the center of the universe, came off the throne to show the way of eternal life. Of the real joy and meaning of existence – being nothing. The pure in heart will see God.

‘Taking the very nature of a servant.’ ‘The son of man came not to be served but to serve.’ Jesus showed us how to live meaningfully – emptying himself of self-interest he filled himself with loving service of others. Serving others sets us free like nothing else can. All our self-assertive talk about freedom and rights often lead us only into greater captivity – an enslavement to ourselves and to our ego/self-will. But there is nothing more beautiful than a person who has no thought of himself, but only the interests of others. To embrace the needs of others is to declare that I have everything I need in Christ. By serving we do not ‘lose face’ but affirm our richness and glory in Christ. Servanthood sets us free from ourselves, and sets us free to embrace everything else – not least, God. Not clutching on to ourselves, our hands are open to receive. The meek shall inherit the earth.

‘He humbled himself and became obedient to death.’ He died. One could not let go of Self more than to lay down one’s own life. It is the essence of true humility – not an appearance of lowliness, not a token helpfulness to others, not a charitable disposition. But a disciplined determination to DIE. We will all die, but will we die well? Someone once said that we seem to live as though we will never die, and we die as though we have never lived. Christ shows the only kind of living and dying considered worthwhile is to live knowing we will die for others and die knowing that we have lived for others. Christ also taught us the meaning of death – it is the last and greatest gift in a life of serving. To cling no longer to this world, to one’s own rights and comforts, to hold nothing of my own life precious.

Humility by far the hardest virtue to attain because paradoxically we cannot attain it by trying. It is also painfully difficult because every step we take in the direction of humility, we go against the very grain of our human nature. Our sinful nature will not go to the grave quietly, it kicks and screams – ‘My way!’ Our intrinsic drive to achieve, to be independent from God, to attain our own world will oppose us every step of the way. So daily we must choose the Cross. To be emptied. To serve. To die. We humble ourselves before God – saying, Here I am, I am your servant, be it unto me as you will – and in due time he lifts us up, taking us up in his good and perfect will. We choose brokenness – welcoming every opportunity that breaks our hardened hearts , and obscurity – preferring to be hidden and unknown, and in so doing we walk the way of Christ and find the complete freedom that is fellowship with Christ.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Discovering God's Will

This was delivered as a sermon at Ampang Gospel Centre on June 19, 2005. Many thanks to AGC for inviting me.

Should I marry him/her? What course should I study? Which job should I take? Is it right for me to watch this movie? When was the last time you asked such questions? Are you asking one now? Life is full of choices and crossroads, wouldn’t it be easy if God just told us what to do? There are few questions in a Christian’s life more fraught with frustration than this confusing thing about Discovering God’s Will. Twenty years into being called a Christian, I have to admit I have no idea how to (discover God's will).

But I do know that I can be asking the wrong questions, for the wrong reasons, and without knowing what I'm really asking for.

The wrong reasons for asking

Struggling to figure God’s will we often deceive ourselves. Praying, ‘Lord, what is your will for me?’ we actually mean, ‘God this is too hard a choice, you make it for me.’ My wife does that to me all the time: ‘Darling, should I cut my hair? Darling, does this dress look nice on me?’ Any man, who has been in a relationship long enough, knows not to fall into this trap. The best answer is ‘Up to you darling, you look great either way.’ Rather than do the hard work of making choices and facing their consequences, we try the easy way out. And if it doesn’t go so well – well, it’s His fault!

There are also those of us who are eternally self-doubting. Insecure about our relationship with God, we keep asking, ‘God, is this your will for me?’ because we are never sure if God approves of us. We are always looking for ways to prove our worth to Him. We keep trying harder and finding new ways, and to earn God’s love. Driven by fear and insecurity we keep busy but it is never enough.

But Who am I? We are ‘sons of the Most High’, not slaves of the evil taskmaster. God said to Jesus, ‘You are my Beloved’ at the Jordan, before He even preached his first sermon or performed his first miracle. He didn’t have to do anything to be the Beloved, and neither do we. We are sons, not slaves. We are the Beloved of God. You and I need not keep a list of do’s and don’t’s. Rules and rituals offer a false sense of safety at the high price of our freedom. Paul says to the Galatians, ‘Who has bewitched you?.. Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing…? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?’1

Before we ask what is God's will, let's first ask, who am I to God?

The wrong questions to ask

There are no short-cuts in life’s journey. Joseph’s own roller-coaster story of betrayal after betrayal only finds vindication toward the end. One would expect him to be bitter and resentful, not least towards God. But without much direct ‘guidance’ from heaven, Joseph kept his integrity and faith. Whether in jail or in Pharoah’s court he blesses everyone he comes in contact with. How does he do it?

Perhaps the crushing of a man yields the sweetest grace? Perhaps by 'losing his life' he has gained it? His ego and ambitions destroyed, he was set free to be what he was called to be. Joseph confesses at the end that ‘God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance… it was not you who sent me here, but God.’2 Rid of his childhood pride, and clearly having forgiven, God’s purposes had become his own.

Trials help us discover who God is in our lives and define our calling. It is only in darkness that we look for the light, only when we’re lost do we find a way. God’s high purposes for us makes ‘safety guidelines’ redundant. ‘Dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code,’3 explains Paul to the Romans. Nhat Hanh, speaking of this same freedom says: ‘People think it is impossible to establish a system of ethics without referring to good and evil. But clouds float, flowers bloom, and wind blows. What need have they for a distinction between good and evil? Life is lived just as the wind blows, clouds drift, and flowers bloom. When you know how to fly, you don't need a street map.’4

Why ask what is Your will when you can ask, who are You and what is Your purpose for me?

Am I ready for an answer?

There is no doubt that God DOES guide us. He says: ‘I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you. Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.’5 He has ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’6

But do we ask for our own indulgence or for the glory of God and the His Kingdom? For, it is the ‘pure in heart who will see God.’7 You will hardly expect God to reveal to you something you have no intention in obeying! We must listen to God with our whole being, listening not for knowledge, but with the will to choose His will, and a body to act on it. That is the meaning of obedience (Latin, oboedire - 'to listen.')8. When we ask for His will, let us be like Mary who listens that she may obey: ‘I am the Lord's servant, may it be to me as you have said.’

The hardest choices are not about what to do and where to go. In the final analysis it is my will against God’s. Until we let go of our hardened self-will and crucify it at the Cross, we will always be miserable. Jesus died that we may be free from self and sin. When we take the cup and the bread, we reaffirm our own death. Realising this, Merton said: ‘I was free. I had recovered my liberty. I belonged to God, not to myself: and to belong to Him is to be free, free of all the anxieties and worries and sorrows that belong to this earth, and the love of the things that are in it…. The only thing that mattered was the fact of the sacrifice, the essential dedication of one's self, one's will. The rest was only accidental’9

Don't miss the adventure!

From the revelation of Abraham to Jesus, God’s greatest goal for us is Himself. To Abraham, God said: ‘Do not be afraid,.. I am your shield, your very great reward.’10 Jesus said: ‘Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’11 Life should be as exciting as a mystery novel – you know it’s going to have a great ending but you’ll never guess how it gets there. And God isn't about to spoil it for us by horroscope-like answers. (If you've had a thriller movie ruined by someone who reveals the plot at every turn, you'll know that I mean.) Our craving for signs betrays our lack of security in God than a sincere need to know.

Every bit of life is precious – the ups and the downs, the good and the bad, the successes and the failures – I wouldn’t trade them for any kind of quick answers. God is more interested in us finding Him, knowing Him and loving Him then in getting every step of life perfectly right. Let’s first come to a full assurance of who we are, grasp His purpose for us, and cultivate a heart of obedience firmly in place. In all things, He is our sure and present Guide.

1. NIV. Galatians 3:1-3. Holy Bible: Zondervan Press.
2. NIV. Genesis 45:7-8. Holy Bible: Zondervan Press.
3. NIV. Romans 7:6. Holy Bible: Zondervan Press.
4. Hanh TN. 24-25 December 1962. Fragrant Palm Leaves. New York: Riverhead Books, 1966. pp. 105.
5. NIV. Psalm 32:8-10. Holy Bible: Zondervan Press.
6. NIV. Jeremiah 29:11. Holy Bible: Zondervan Press.
7. NIV. Matthew 5:8. Holy Bible: Zondervan Press.
8. Melanie, Mike. Archive of Your Etymology Questions.
9. Merton T. Magnetic North. In McDonnell TP, ed. A Thomas Merton Reader. New York: Doubleday, 1989. pp. 132.
10. NIV. Genesis 15:1. Holy Bible: Zondervan Press.
11. NIV. John 17:3. Holy Bible: Zondervan Press.