Living in Narnia

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Christian Response to the World Around Us- Meditations on the Kingdom of God

We live in a very sad world. Day after day the newspapers carry reports of wars, deaths, assassinations, riots and bombings. Governments are inept and corrupt; millions starve and die from disease. Closer to home, we hear of broken families, abandoned babies, homeless elderly. Humans are the most destructive of all species, endlessly killing each other and destroying the Earth and environment.

Many are very disillusioned with this world and see no possible hope for it. The problems are just so monumental, and their root lies in the very falleness of human nature. How are we ever going to change anything? So we just go on worrying about own lives, in our own struggle for survival.

Even Christians feel this way. We know that we have a Sovereign God who reigns over the Earth and controls all things; yet it is hard to reconcile the state of this world with a Sovereign, good God. We do have the comfort of knowing that once we leave this world and go to heaven we will have escaped all this. And this had led to many Christians thinking that the most important task on earth, is to get people "saved", in the spiritual sense. To get them into heaven. No matter how much we do to help their physical state here on earth, in the end they will die, and this world is going to be destroyed anyway.

Is that the right way to look at things?

Rewind back to the days just before Jesus came. The Jews were pretty disillusioned with the world around them too. Conquered by and living under the Roman Empire, they longed for the coming Messiah to rescue them and restore the kingdom to Israel. And Jesus indeed did come. But nothing much changed. Jesus was crucified on a Cross. The Romans continued to rule.

But of course something had changed. Jesus had proclaimed the good news of salvation; those who believed in Him would never perish but have everlasting life.

But was that all that Jesus preached? The core of Jesus' preaching here on Earth was not just eternal life. John the Baptist's message was, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand." And time and again, Jesus' gospel was not just the gospel of salvation, but the gospel of the Kingdom. In the book of Matthew he told a series of parables about the Kingdom of God. And in the Lord's prayer, His first words were, "Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy Kingdom come..." Evidently this Kingdom of God was very important to Him. And furthermore, he proclaimed that the "Kingdom of God is here..."

So what then is this Kingdom? We usually think of it as a physical realm that is ruled by a King. But that was probably not what Jesus was referring to in His time; after all, the government didn’t change. When we examine the root of the word in Greek, we find that it refers not to a physical realm, but rather a reign. A Kingdom is the authority or sovereignty that a King possesses. Now we can understand why in the Lord's prayer, the words "Thy Kingdom come" are followed by the words "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". God's Kingdom is present when God's sovereign will is done on earth.

The Bible does tell us that there will come a time when Jesus will come again, to finally destroy all human authority and kingdoms, as well as Satan and all his minions, and establish His everlasting kingdom forever. The mystery of the kingdom is this- why did the Messiah come twice? Why didn't Jesus just come once, accomplish His work on the Cross, destroy all the earthly systems of evil, and claim what is rightfully His? Why is there a lag time between His coming then, and the coming Kingdom?

God has many hidden ways that are beyond our human understanding. But we can understand this, that when He came 2000 years ago, He came to establish His Kingdom, His reign, in the hearts of men. When God established the Kingdom of Israel, he had created a physical kingdom of men, but He did not have their hearts. Time and time again the Israelites strayed from Him in the wickedness of their hearts. It was a repeated cycle of disobedience and judgement.

When Jesus confronted the religious leaders of the day, His eyes pierced through their outward facades of spirituality into the deep wickedness of their hearts. He was concerned about inward obedience, without which outward compliance to traditions and laws meant nothing. In the heart was where He wanted to rule.

And He gathered to Himself a ruddy band of 12 disciples, who of themselves were woefully inadequate. But there was one difference- after His death and resurrection, He bestowed on them the Holy Spirit. And my, what a difference it made. The band of squabbling, fearful individuals became a force of world-changing disciples. The early Christian church grew without bounds, even in the face of the fiercest persecution ever known. Where was the difference? Deep in their hearts. In the apostle Paul's writings we see evidence of a man whose heart was deeply and fiercely devoted and obedient to God, without any compromise.

God wants to reign in our hearts. If he is not Lord there, then He is not Lord at all. Are our hearts fully and totally submitted to Him? The answer is no. And so our entire lives are a quest to bring our hearts in total submission to Him. To take up our Cross and follow Him.

As we see in the Lord’s prayer, God wants His will to be done on earth. That is the Kingdom of God here and now. What is his will? Certainly not for man to suffer, because He loves man so dearly. It breaks his heart when people starve, suffer and die of disease. Jesus was constantly moved with compassion when he saw the sick and poor, and healed many of them. And now, He wants His will to continue to be done- through us. A man in whom Christ reigns cannot just stand there and watch as the world suffers. We are meant to become, in the words of a song, "the hands of Christ reaching out to those in need; the face of God for all to see."

How do we start? The task is so daunting. We often think that God has given us very little advice on how to improve the state of human affairs on earth. But that could not be further from the truth. The books of Numbers and Leviticus in the Bible detail for us not just a set of mindless laws for the Jews to follow, but an entire social and governance system that God created. It covers the practical issues of money, food, land, employment, treatment of marginalised groups, even health. It is extensive and comprehensive, which is why it is so long. We may think it is inpractical, but in truth it is an amazing system, catering to the needs of all social classes and ensuring that no one was ever disadvantaged or left behind. "God desires that there should be no poor in the land..."

We may think, how can we ever implement such a system? We are not in government! But the amazing thing was, this system was meant to be executed without a human king. In God's original plan, there was never meant to be a human king. It was only because the people of Israel hankered after one, that God granted them so. The system would work when each and every Israelite obeyed God’s laws and carried them out. But of course, they didn’t. God did not reign in their hearts.

God cares for the affairs of this world, enough to think of an entire system of governance. He does not want there to be human suffering and poverty. And we are His agents of change. The laws that God set down for Israel thousands of years ago may not be practical today, but the principles remain the same. Loving your neighbour as yourself. Sharing with and giving to the poor and the needy. Caring for the marginalized and disadvantaged in society. Visiting widows and orphans in their trouble. Loving and nurturing our families. Seeking to narrow, not widen, the income gap. Enforcing justice in the land. Being good stewards of the environment and its resources, and not abusing it.

All of us, regardless of our position in society, can live out these principles in our lives and occupations in the world out there. In the way we relate to the people around us, the poor and needy we encounter, the diligence we give to our work, the way we run our businesses, the way we spend our money, and so forth. That is where the battle is fought. But first Christ must reign in our hearts. We have the Holy Spirit within us, and that makes all the difference!

Rewind back even further, to the dawn of Creation. God created a beautiful world where there was perfect harmony. Perfect harmony between God and Man. Perfect harmony between Man and Woman. And perfect harmony between Man and Nature. Sin came and destroyed that perfect harmony at all 3 levels. Man was estranged from God, turned against one another, and abused the Earth. But God's will is that that perfect harmony should be re-established at all levels, and that is how it will be like in the coming City of God, so marvellously portrayed in Revelation. In the meantime, we are called to work towards that goal, under the Lordship of Christ. At times, I look at this beautiful Earth that we live in, filled with God's magnificent creation. And I think to myself, is this world meant to be a sad, broken wasteland? No! God intended for it to be a land where man resides in God's awesome creation at harmony with each other, with no one poor, suffering or needy, with no wars or destruction. And that is what I am working towards.

This is the message that the world desperately needs to hear. The message that God has and always has had a plan for this world, that is should be something beautiful, not what it is today. And we can inch towards that, if Christians all over the world will unite under the Lordship of Christ and work for the Kingdom of God here on earth. Our lives must be radically different, our values must totally change. Even one man with Christ reigning in Him can make a huge difference. Remember William Wilberforce, and how he succeeded in abolishing slavery despite the huge opposition he faced? How much more millions of Christians all over the world, in every station of society!

You and I can make a difference in this world. The Kingdom of God is here!

God of grace and God of glory,
On Thy people pour Thy power.
Crown Thine ancient church’s story,
Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

Lo! the hosts of evil ’round us,
Scorn Thy Christ, assail His ways.
From the fears that long have bound us,
Free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the living of these days,
For the living of these days.

Cure Thy children’s warring madness,
Bend our pride to Thy control.
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.

Set our feet on lofty places,
Gird our lives that they may be,
Armored with all Christ-like graces,
In the fight to set men free.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
That we fail not man nor Thee,
That we fail not man nor Thee.

Save us from weak resignation,
To the evils we deplore.
Let the search for Thy salvation,
Be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Serving Thee Whom we adore,
Serving Thee Whom we adore.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

As I was preparing to leave a friend's party on New Year's Eve, I was bending down to wear my shoe when suddenly I felt a shooting pain down my left leg as it collapsed under me. I thought nothing of it until the next morning when the same thing happened as I was bending to brush my teeth, albeit with worse intensity. It seemed that I had suffered a slipped disc.

What a way to start the New Year!

I was given an MC for the week and for the next few days, I rested in bed with minimal movement. Out of the whole experience I learnt a few valuable lessons.

Lying there and trying to pray and reflect on the Word of God, I realised how prone my mind is to wander. In daily life my mind is constantly kept busy by the many demands of work and study. But that morning, as all the busyness was stripped away and rest enforced, I found rather infuriatingly that I just could not concentrate on God. I could barely pray for 5 minutes without my thoughts drifting to some mundane thing. I determined that I would discipline my mind to focus on God, and so for the next hour or so I lay there, the cycle of subconsciously drifting away and doggedly returning repeating many times. By the end I was tired, but thankfully I had managed to reflect on some important issues.

It was a crucial lesson for me, going into this New Year. In our spiritual lives our minds are a powerful faculty, helping us to understand and meditate on the Word of God, analyse the world around us, and to reflect on our lives and set spiritual directions. Jesus commanded, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." (Matt 22:37) But we find that in life our minds are constantly occupied by work, people, leisure, and a thousand and one other things. And the serious consequence is that our minds have not been trained to love God.

How then do we love God with our minds? Well firstly I believe it must be seen as a discipline. Our minds are like a playful child in class, restless and always running around, needing to be disciplined to sit still and listen to the Teacher. Secondly, it is not confined to our devotional time each day, but it is an all-day affair. We love God with our minds when we go to work, when we relate to the people around us, when we study, when we do our devotions in quiet. It is the constant focusing of the mind to fulfill God's purposes and shine His light, no matter what the activity or time of day. It is like a constant tuning of a radio to receive and broadcast messages throughout the day. It is a constant reflection on ourselves and how we are living, so that we may realise our sins and shortcomings and seek the Lord's guidance.

Such a mind will have no problems concentrating on God when quiet time comes, because it has never stopped concentrating on Him at all. Oh, for such a mind!

Lying there in bed was also quite frustrating for me, because even doing simple things became difficult and inconvenient. Getting books or notes was a real hassle, trying to type notes with the laptop in my lap and head propped up was a real discomfort, and I had not achieved much by the end of the day.

In retrospect, I realise that prior to the injury, one of the mottos of my life had been stregnth and accomplishment. Especially with my final exams looming just 2 months away. I needed to work fast and effectively to be able to cover the vast amounts of information. And I think it is very much part of my personality too, to have my life organized and in control. Having goals and purposes, working hard and efficiently to achieve them, trying not to waste any time.

But during those days in bed, all that changed. I was no longer the master of my destiny; even something simple like getting up from bed was slow and painful. I had to accept that I could not do things as fast or efficiently as before. I had to take time to rest. In short, I had to allow a certain amount of weakness in my life.

And the verse which came to me was 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10. It is one my favourite verses in the Bible, written by the apostle Paul-

"To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.
But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

What that thorn in the flesh was in uncertain, but what Paul is saying here is earth-shattering. He delighted in weakness, because that is when he learnt to depend on the grace of the Lord to make Him strong. "For when I am weak, then I am strong".

In a world that celebrates individual strength and achievement, this is unthinkable. We can probably hardly believe it ourselves. And yet, when we really think about it, is not our human strength an illusion? We are fallible; no one is invincible. Even the very greatest fail. But compare that to the power of our Almighty God, Sovereign, the One for whom nothing is impossible. The One who orders this world. The choice is obvious. And He said, "my power is made perfect in weakness". What an amazing prospect!

So what does it mean to be weak? As Paul mentioned, it may mean some physical weakness or infirmity, or some difficulties, hardships or persecutions. These are the situations that really force us to depend on the Lord. But I believe it also means having an attitude of weakness no matter what the circumstance - always recognising that our human strength is just not sufficient, and depending on the Lord's grace and strength. This is different from self-belittlement, which is to think that we are totally useless and can do nothing at all. We recognise that God has given us a certain amount of strength and ability, but it is never sufficient. We need the grace of the Lord. We see through the illusion of our own human strength and pride, and humbly exchange it for the perfect power of God.

The best example is actually not Paul, but our Lord Jesus Himself. His words showed a remarkable dependence on the Father, and His life echoed that, constantly retreating to spend time with Him. He travelled miles on foot, not with an army behind, but a ragamuffin band of disciples. He entered Jerusalem not in a carriage, but on a donkey. His life was characterized by persecution and opposition, and culminated in the ultimate show of weakness- death on a Cross. And yet that Cross on Calvary has become the greatest symbol of God's power in the history of this world.

The victorious Christian life is not through a throne, but through the Cross. It was a humbling lesson for me as I entered this New Year, a year that will be full of struggle, hardship and difficulty. All the more, that attitude of weakness is what I truly need!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Reflections for the New Year

"Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ,
For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power."
Colossians 2:8-10

"Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth." Colossians 3:2

For quite long I had been struggling with a number of issues. One was an awareness that my mind had become increasingly undisciplined, often drifting away to earthly and mundane things instead of to the things of God. Another was a crisis of identity. In the past I saw myself as a disciple of Christ, living to serve Him and bring Him glory. But increasingly I began to define my life in worldly terms- enjoying earthly pleasures, exciting hobbies and interests, having certain material possessions, excelling in worldly endeavours and achievements.

It was on the background of these struggles that these 2 verses came. "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ..." In an instant I realised that I had been influenced greatly by the world around me. In day and age, traditional philosophy is not often talked about, but I believe that there are certain modern philosophies or values of life that people carry.

One is that of hedonism- living life purely for the pursuit of pleasure. We see it everywhere- people indulge in exquisite food, luxurious and exotic holidays, alcohol, sex, and so forth. The maxim here is to enjoy life to the max. Advertisements encourage us to indulge ourselves, books detail the best restaurants and the most exciting holidays, people tell us how to get the most out of life.

Another is that of materialism. Money makes the world, and Singapore especially, go round. People live their entire lives in pursuit of money and the million and one glitzy things that money can buy. Big houses, flashy cars, the latest gadgets, designer clothes, and other valued possessions. They are also status symbols, marks of success in a person's life. Some people work so hard to earn their millions that they neglect their own families. Many resort to gambling, which seems a much easier road to riches- hence the rise in betting, lottery and most recently casinos.

There is no doubt that physical needs like food, homes, transport have to be met. Our problem is that we are not content with simply meeting our needs. A simple functional car is not enough; we must have the fastest, flashiest, most luxurious one. A simple apartment or flat is not enough; we must have that big bungalow with the huge garden and swimming pool. Simple clothes are not enough; we must have the lates fashion. The Bible tells us that "with food and clothing, we shall be content". A missionary once taught me that principle of living below what you can afford. Living by these principles free up money that can be used to bless the poor, needy and suffering.

The third is not really a philosophy, but rather a phenomenon- that of hobbies. It seems benign enough in itself, but in the modern era, the advancement of technology and the widespread access to information on the Internet and books have led to hobbies becoming so “interesting” and time-consuming that people can spend their entire lives on them, neglecting all else. Examples include teenagers (and adults) spending hours in front of a computer screen or television, sometimes even forgetting food. People spending hours browsing through online shopping catalogues or walking the malls. Or people spending hours taking photographs or looking at the latest photographic equipment. Or people spending many months or years travelling the world, in search of new experiences.

Not to say that hobbies are wrong in themselves. I myself am an avid photographer and traveller. But in that respect I have come to understand that finding a balance is crucial. More time and energy spend on my hobbies means less time spent with God, serving God, building relationships with people. And this is especially so in our busy world where we already have so little time. It is not just time, but thinking to much about them also can turn our minds away from God. I do not think the early apostles like Paul, or the great heroes of the faith in centuries past, had many hobbies to distract them (no televisions or computers or shopping malls at that time).

This balance is intensely personal; it varies from person to person. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. The things that bind me may not have the effect on someone else. It is the same for material possessions as well; different people covet different things. One must search his own heart before God, and honestly evaluate if these worldly things have distracted him or her from God’s purposes.

We do not realise how much these worldly values and philosophies have integrated into us, but they have. As disciples of Christ we cannot avoid them, but we must be able to stand back, realise their existence, and seek to free ourselves of them. "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 12:2) Enjoying pleasure and having material goods and hobbies in this world are NOT evil- in fact, the Bible tells us that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights..” (James 1:17). It is only when we idolise these things and make their acquisition our sole aim in life that we have lost sight of God’s original plan. The gifts are not the goal, but merely to draw us closer to the Giver and heighten our enjoyment of Him. Our lives should therefore be defined not in terms of the gifts, but as service to the Giver.

"For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power". The second part of the verse also spoke to me. I have often felt this sense of uneasiness, that if I did not live as the world lives, and excel at or possess worldly things, then I would be missing out on something in life. This verse reassured me that in Christ I was already complete- in Him I find the purpose He created me for, the liberation from worldly chains to live under His will, and the joy that money can never buy and this world and its attractions can never give.

“Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” It seems that as we grow older, we tend to develop spiritual tunnel vision. Our eyes become fixed on worldly affairs, and we lose the ability to look up to see things of eternal value. It is partly due to the philosophies that I mentioned earlier, and the fact that as we age the practical questions of living, such as income and occupation, have to be answered. It is also because we are surrounded by people (non-Christian and Christian) who are worldly in their outlook. It is very difficult to avoid jumping on the bandwagon.

The only way out is to constantly seek the influence of God, and here is where our inner spiritual life is so crucial. We need prolonged periods of time alone with God, reflecting on our lives, meditating on His Word, and praying. In doing so we seek to re-align our values and purposes with His, and allow His Spirit to change us from deep within. For at least 8 hours a day, 5-6 days a week we are under the influence of Man; surely the 5 minutes spent with God before bed is not sufficient! It requires discipline, but it is a discipline that leads to life. In our daily lives as well, we must learn to, as Brother Lawrence described, "practise the presence of God." In the midst of our activities and work, we need to constantly attune ourselves to Him in our hearts and minds, and not allow the values of the world to seep in.

This beautiful hymn “Come find the Quiet Centre” sums it up beautifully:

Come and find the quiet center
In the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter,
find the frame where we are freed:
Clear the chaos and the clutter,
Clear our eyes that we can see.
All the things that really matter,
Be at peace and simply be.

That quiet centre, that inner life, is what so many of us lack. And it is not something we can create; it is a gift of God as we seek Him earnestly. It shows in the way we treat people, the way we react to stressful situations, setbacks and sufferings. It helps us stand firm in the face of modern philosophies and values, it turns our minds back to God and eternal things. It is the centre of unbroken peace and joy; it constantly spurs us to serve God and glorify Him. I ask myself, is that quiet centre there? And the answer is a plain No.

So my resolution for this year is to seek that quiet centre. May you be able to find it too. Blessed New Year!

Friday, December 28, 2007

A Reflection on Christmas

So Christmas has come and gone, complete with the dazzling lights, glitzy parties, delicious turkey feasts and opulent gifts. As Christians we have long learnt to look beyond the hype and commercialism to the true meaning of Christmas; and so in our churches we celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus with hymns by soft candlelight and scenes of the peaceful stable.

But is that all there is to Christmas? As I reflected this year a few things struck me, which can be crystallised into 3 questions about Jesus. And these questions have huge implications for my life.

Firstly, to what did Jesus come? We often think of the Bethlehem stable as a wonderfully serene place, as often portrayed in pictures and plays. Baby Jesus lying asleep in the soft hay of the manger, with radiant Mary and Joseph watching over, under a brilliantly starlit sky. “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…”

But in all likelihood, that was not the case. Anyone who has been to a stable would know it is not a nice place to spend the night, with the smell of the horses and their dung all around, and cold winds wafting through the poorly insulated doors and walls. Joseph and Mary would have been physically and emotionally drained after a long day’s journey and numerous rejections from innkeepers. And the events to come were no better. Pursued by a hateful king who ruthlessly slaughtered all the infants in Bethlehem for vengeance, forced to flee to Egypt for their lives, circumstances were anything but peaceful. In fact, Revelation 12 gives an even more vivid and frightening account of the violence that was raging in the spiritual realm that fateful night.

The fact is, Jesus came to a hostile world that rejected and sought to destroy Him. We too live in a world that is hostile and full of strife. Day after day we endure hurt from our employers, our colleagues, even our family and friends. The 20th century has been the bloodiest in the history of man, with more lives lost in war then all the other centuries combined. But it is in this kind of world that Jesus boldly let His light shine, and we are called to follow. “Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…” (Phil 2:14-15) The world will do us no favours, but we must not be disheartened, and continue to live out our faith, serving our fellow humans as Jesus did.

Secondly, how did Jesus come? The Jews expected the coming Messiah to be an all-conquering King in the mould of David, who with his mighty power would sweep the Roman empire out of the land and “restore the kingdom to Israel.” But Jesus stunned all by coming in the form of a vulnerable Child, weak and helpless. Even in his adult life, He never chose the path of earthly power and glory. Having nowhere to lay His head, refusing to be crowned by the people, entering Jerusalem on a donkey, His was a ministry characterised by weakness and humility.

Today the talk is all about self-fulfillment. “If I believe it, I can achieve it.” “There is no limit to human potential”. In the race of meritocracy, the strongest man wins. Work hard and you will succeed. The bookshelves are filled with self-help books about how to fulfil your potential and get what you want. The human being and his desires are at the centre of the universe.

But Jesus’ life showed an entirely different approach. Not strength, but weakness. He lived in utter dependence on His Father. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Not pride or self-exaltation, but humility. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Not to be served, but to serve. “He who desires to be great among you, let him be your servant”. Not success or self-fulfillment, but faithfulness to the Father’s calling. “I have glorified you on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given me to do”.

All of us subconsciously carry worldly values and mindsets, to varying extents. Do we seek our own desires and passions, or do we first seek the will of God? In life, do we rely upon our own strength to work, or do we first humbly seek the Lord’s strength? Is our idea of success to climb the corporate ladder, be highly esteemed among men and to live a comfortable life, or is to be faithful to God’s calling and to serve our fellow men?

Thirdly, for whom did Jesus come? He came for the weak, the poor, the oppressed. The blind, the lame, the lepers. He came for the outcasts of society, like the Samaritan woman. He came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance, like the despised prostitutes and tax collectors.

As we celebrate Christmas in the warmth of our homes with our families and loved ones over delicious feasts, let us remember that there are still so many of such people, just as there were 2000 years ago. The poor, the sick, the suffering. People ravaged by war. Orphans who have lost their parents to war and disease. Child labourers slaving away in factories. The world today is a sad, sad place. And these are the people that Jesus cares so much for, the ones over whom His tears fall.

Someone once wrote, “There is wealth because there is poverty”. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There is enough food in this world to feed every single human being alive, but not when 90% of it is found in the developed countries. It is a sad state of affairs when people splurge hundreds of dollars on a fine meal or millions on a sports car or grand house, when every hour hundreds of children die from starvation or disease. There is so much work to be done in this world. And perhaps it should all start with a simple prayer, asking the Lord for His mercy upon our suffering Earth and its people, and for Him to use us as His agents of healing and help.

Truly, more than just a time to celebrate and sing, Christmas has such deep meaning and significance that it must have great repercussions on the way we live. God Himself coming to Earth as a Man, showing us how to live as humans in this world, following the example that Christ left us.

Blessed (belated) Christmas everyone!

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Mind and the Emotions

"Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God- this is yours 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." Romans 12:1-2

We live in a world where there is a lot of emphasis placed on one's emotions or feelings. The maxim of life seems to be, "If it feels good, do it!" Movies portray love as more of a feeling than a commitment; divorces are on the rise. More and more people are having pre-marital sex or extra-marital affairs because they feel good. People everywhere are spending more on material possessions and expensive vacations to feel good. Whether something is morally right or not is not as important as how it makes us feel. Hedonism- the pursuit of pleasure- has become an art. The famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russel once responded to a question about how he would judge whether something was morally right or not, "On the basis of how I feel, how else?"

We see a similar phenomenon in today's Church, where spirituality seems be judged more by how close we "feel" to God than anything else. The emphasis is on large services with elaborate bands and powerful, heart-stirring music so that the congregation may be caught up in the feeling of worship. If you don't feel close to God, then you are not worshipping. If you don't "feel" the peace of God in your heart, something is wrong.

But in the Bible verse above, the Apostle Paul states the way to discovering God's will is not through the emotions, but through the "renewing of your mind". Why does he say this?

Our spiritual lives, and our lives in general, need an anchor. And it would be great folly to make that anchor our emotions. The emotions are volatile and notoriously fickle. One moment I can be praising God with happiness overflowing and dedicating myself to him; the next moment I can find my emotions being seduced by some worldly desire. One moment I may be feeling so thankful about His love; the next moment I may be filled with anger against someone for hurting me. Emotions rise and fall like the waves of the sea, tossed by the winds of circumstance.

I know because for a long time I thought that life, and spiritual life, was all about feeling good. In my life I placed a high premium on finding time to "enjoy life" and do things that made me relax and feel good. I went on many travels to find those good feelings. In my spiritual life, in retrospect, many times I was seeking more for the feeling of peace and joy that God gives, rather than God Himself. And as a result of all this my life often went haywire. Emotions would flare over small and silly things; one moment I would find myself exuberant and blissful, and the next moment I'd be grumpy, impatient and downright unhappy.

And another danger is, when we let emotions take over our heart, they don't just stop there- they take over our mind as well. Our feelings have a way of finding their way to our minds and convincing them that what we want to do is what we ought to do. We are all too familiar with this. We want badly to do something, so our minds start to connive reasons to justify our actions, sometimes even under the pretense of righteousness or wisdom. Dig deep and we find the root often lies in our emotions.

So now we can appreciate why Paul makes no reference to the emotions, but instead talks about the mind. What is the mind? Well to put it simply it is the part of us that is able to think, read, process, imagine and reflect. Of all Creation, humans are the only creatures made in the image of God, which means that our minds are made in the image of the Mind of God. But since the Fall our minds have been alienated from Him, so that the things that we think about are no longer the things of God. "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned." (1 Cor 2:14)

And so, our minds desperately need renewal. Our minds need to return and connect to the Mind that conceived and created us all. How do we do this? It would take way too long to discuss fully what is required, but in one word it is this- discipline. The discipline to spend time reading and meditating on God's word, reading good solid Christian books, listening to godly speakers. The discipline of quiet reflection and submission, allowing the Word and Truth of God to permeate our minds and transform our world views and perspectives. The discipline of "bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ." (2 Cor 10:5)

The emotions do not like discipline. They like to run free like wild horses, unbridled, unhindered. But we need to make a willful effort to submit our emotions to God, and persevere in spite of them. If we do not control them, they will control us. The wonderful thing is, as our mind begins to be transformed and renewed by the truth of God, our emotions start to follow suit. The truths in our minds begin to stir the emotions in our heart, so that our emotions now become God-centred. It is a great and wonderful thing! From the head to the heart, not the other way around.

Try it! I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

"For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?
But we have the mind of Christ."
1 Cor 2:16

**A good book I would recommend that talks about the discipline of the mind (and many other disciplines) is Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

This morning I was reading and meditating on Matthew 1 and 2. The story of the Virgin birth, and how the wise men from the East travelled far and wide to see the Christ-child. When they did, they fell on their knees, worshipped Him and gave Him their precious gifts of gold, myyrh and frankincense.

And I thought to myself, what would I do if Jesus walked into my room that very instant? Fall down and worship... what would I say? What gifts of mine would I give Him?

And then it dawned on me that Jesus is with me every moment of the day! "Immanuel- God with us." (Matt 1:23). He is not here physically, but He is in our hearts. The Holy Spirit is with us. We are told in the Word that we are temples of the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, the Temple in Jerusalem was where the presence of God resided, in the Holy of Holies. Now the veil has been torn away, and God resides in our hearts. Isn't that amazing? Our constant Rock, our constant Help in time of need.

And at the same time, isn't that deeply sobering? Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, God is there beside us and inside us, watching. Sleeping, waking, eating, working, playing, driving, thinking, talking, worshipping in Church... He sees it all. Should that not transform the way we live? Should not our every action, our every word, our every thought, be an act of worship to Him? There is no sacred-secular divide. There is no public-private divide. We are His living temples, and every moment we should be worshipping.

We do not live at a distance from God, only drawing near on Sundays, and then returning to the "outside world". We live constantly in His presence, He with us and in us. And therefore, every moment can be a moment of sweet conversation with Him."Rejoice always, pray without ceasing" 1 Thess. 5:16-17. Every task, no matter how small or trivial, can be done as an act of love to Him. "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." Col 3:23-24. As Brother Lawrence said, "we ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed."

May this transform the way we live our lives!

"Therefore, I urge you, brothers, 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."
Romans 12:1-2

Just returned from a 2 month medical elective in Nepal, spent 6 weeks at a rural mission hospital in a small town called Tansen.

Nepal is an amazingly beautiful country, a testament to the wonder of God's marvellous creation. The mighty snow-capped Himalaya, deep valleys, lush forests and raging rivers bear witness to our awesome Creator. And yet it is also a very poor and underdeveloped country, still reeling from the ravages of 10 years of civil war and struggling under an ineffectual government very much in its infancy. The very nature of the terrain makes transport and development difficult. Most of the people live hard lives as farmers; even those who have studied through college and university find it difficult to find jobs. Many are forced to work overseas in India and other countries. Schools have poor facilities and undedicated teachers who worry more about money than about their students. Corruption is rampant.

It is also the world's only Hindu state, where proselytising is illegal. Officially about 70% of the population is Hindu.

Tansen Mission Hospital was established in 1953 by the United Mission to Nepal. Today it is a tertiary hospital that sees many patients from the Western area of Nepal and adjacent India. It is a hospital for the poor- many patients are unable to afford the hospital fees and hence receive financial help from the Social Services. No patient is ever turned away because of lack of money, unlike most other hospitals in Nepal.

One of the greatest lessons I learnt there was the impact that Christ's love can have on the people. I remember particularly one Nepali brother I met. He had grown up under tough circumstances, his father being an alcoholic (which is a very widespread problem in Nepal). But after he came to Christ, his whole life was transformed. He recalled being a teacher in a rural school, which was very poorly equipped and in a bad state. While most of the other teachers around him were doing it just for the money, he determined to do all he could to help his students. He agonized to the point of tears before the Lord. Before long, his school had won an award for the best school in the district. Today he works in a local fellowship reaching out to his countrymen. This man was a real man of God, one who radiates Christ everywhere he goes.

Another man I met, a retired Indian Army soldier, had been an alcoholic almost all his life. But when he turned to Christ, his alcoholism stopped. A Nepali doctor in the hospital, himself saved from the brink of death from disease by a miracle from God, now serving his countrymen passionately when he could be working overseas for a lot more money. There are many of such stories. In a world where many profess to believe in Christ, but their lives show no sign of it- Bonhoeffer's concept of "cheap grace"- such living examples of discipleship and transformation were inspiring and refreshing.

St. Francis once said, "Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary." 50 years ago, when the first 2 missionaries came to Tansen, they were the only Christians there. The hill where the hospital stands today was a barren wasteland, used for cremating dead bodies. Because of the work of the hospital, today there are 2 thriving churches in Tansen, and many daughter churches around. The hospital does not just treat patients, but reaches out to poor villages around the area, helping to transform them in areas of health, sanitation and work. It runs a nutrition centre that helps severly malnourished children and their parents. As the Bible says, "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden... Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." Matt 5:14-16

God's love and light shines through those who are willing to be used by Him, to those who need to receive it. Nepal needs the love of Christ. To a Hindu believer; life is a never-ending cycle of birth and rebirth. Your life now is determined not by your actions, but what has happened in your previous life (karma). There is much despair. But those who believe in Christ both present and future hope, indeed an eternal hope. And our actions in this life, by the grace of God, can touch and impact many around us in beautiful ways.

If you feel a burden for Nepal, do join us in praying for this country. It needs a good, upright government that works for the good of its people; it needs much prayer. If you would like to find out more about the hospital or contribute to their work, you can visit their website at I'd love to share more with you about our experiences there if you are interested.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

This is a little late, but Happy New Year to everyone! :o)

How did you cross over into 2007? At the Countdown with glorious fireworks and jubilant celebrations? With friends and family over a warm cup of coffee or a mahjong table? For the first time in 3 or 4 years, I spent it at Watchnight service in church. For various reasons I had missed the previous ones- either too lazy to attend, having some other party, or being overseas.

In church, the new year was not ushered in with great celebration, loud music, or flashing lights, but a minute of silence- and total darkness. A minute for us to be still- and to talk to the Lord.

It was a powerful experience for me. That moment of darkness enlightened me. In that brief moment, I realized the true state of my life, and of the world and the rest of humanity.

We live in constant darkness. The darkness of this sin-stained world where Satan reigns and where evil abounds. The darkness of our own sinful nature, as we commit crimes against God and our fellow man. The darkness of the future, where everything is uncertain.

For a long time now I have been trying to live life my own way. Trying to find my own happiness, trying to fulfill my own passions, trying to engineer my own successes and achievements, succumbing to my sinful nature. And I am no closer to the peace that I seek. Without God I am lost, stumbling in darkness. I have no idea what I really want in this life, no strength to fight against my sinfulness, no inner peace in the midst of all the busy striving. I allow myself to drift from day to day, tossed on the waves of my desire for self-gratification and man's praise, or drowning in the flood of work and responsibilities. I crave after the things and pleasures of this world, and yet find them fleeting and empty. My studies are not carried by trust in the Lord, but driven by fear. My devotional life is often non-existent. Several times I have stopped and asked myself, "What am I doing with my life?"

"And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it." (John 1:5) In the midst of our darkness, the light of Christ shines. "That was the true Light which gives light to every man who comes into the world." (John 1:9)

In retrospect, it is only when I have drawn near to God that life has made sense. With Him I have direction, balance, peace, self-control. Without Him, life quickly degenerates into that mad and meaningless rush that I have earlier described. He is my Rock and my Shepherd.

And so in that moment of darkness, I looked to the Light. I resolved, in this new year, to keep looking to the Light. To turn away from the idols in my life, to humble myself, to maintain a deep devotional life.

A few years ago, while I was in the Philippines on a mission trip, I remember returning to my hotel in a taxi at night. We drove along a winding mountain road that was absolutely dark, save for the headlights of the taxi. We could see no further than a few metres ahead, and never beyond the next bend in the road. And I thought to myself, isn't this a powerful illustration of life? We live in darkness, not knowing how to live or what lies ahead. We cannot see where the next bend in the road of life will take us. But God gives us just enough light for the next step ahead. He does not leave us in total darkness, or we may stumble and fall; He does not reveal too much of the road ahead, lest we become smug and complacent. Every step of the way we are dependent on Him for guidance.

May the true Light shine brightly in your life in the New Year!

“And I said to the man who stood at the gate, “Give me a light, that I may tread safely into the unknown."
And he replied: "Go out into darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way."
So I went forth, and finding the hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me toward the hills, and the breaking of the day."

Friday, November 10, 2006

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.
And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.
Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Matthew 5:38-48

The above words of Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount are one of the hardest, if not the hardest, commands to follow. Anyone who has been through life will know that there are always people who will hurt you, abuse you, cheat you, mistreat you and spitefully use you, just as Jesus said. And our natural response is to feel angry and try to take revenge. How, in the face of evil, do we turn the other cheek?

I have struggled with this for a long time and held bitterness and resentment in my heart against various people who have hurt me in my life. A turning point came when I read these words written by a fellow VCFer- "let ourselves be vessels of God's love". What does it mean to be a vessel of God's love?

My experiences have taught me one thing, that our own human love is never enough. Never enough to totally forgive the grievances that others have caused us. But to be a vessel of God's love means to not rely on our own human love, but to allow God's love to course through us to others. To be an instrument of His love, an instrument of His peace, as St. Francis wrote.

And to do that, instead of thinking, "what should I do to this person, now that he has done this to me?" Because invariably our natural response will be to get angry, to curse, to take revenge. Instead, we should ask, "What would God do to this person?" For if we are going to be an instrument of His love, then we must surely act as He would! And what would God do?

1) He would forgive.
2) He would desire the good of the person.
3) He would have compassion on the person and his circumstances
4) He would be kind.

The list can go on and on. In essence, we should forgive just as God forgives, we should always work for the good of the other person. We should seek to understand others, and why they act in a certain way. Perhaps they are suffering themselves? Perhaps they are depressed, lonely, helpless? They need God!

Lest we should think that their sins are too great to be forgiven by God, Jesus told a parable in Matthew 18: 21-35 about a servant who owed his king a great debt of ten thousand talents. In those days, a talent was the equivalent of a 15 years' wages of a labourer. The king one day decided settle accounts and, on discovering the servant's debt, ordered that he be sold, together with his wife and children and all he had. The servant fells on his knees and prayed for patience, and the king, moved with compassion, forgave him the debt. That same servant, once he left, met a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii. A denarii was the equivalent of one day's wages. The other servant was unable to pay and begged for patience, but the servant would not and threw him into jail. On finding out, the king was enraged and delivered him to the torturers.

Ten thousand talents versus one hundred denarii. 150 thousand years of wages versus a hundred days. Jesus deliberately picked those numbers. How can we not forgive our brothers, when we ourselves have been forgiven so, so much more?

Lest we also should think that God should desire to punish such people for their evil, Paul makes it clear in the Bible too-

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord.
On the contrary:
"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" Romans 12: 17-21

"It is mine to avenge, I will repay" says the Lord. Vengeance belongs to Him and Him alone. We are commanded to leave that to him, and simply to do good. As it is said, He makes his sun to rise on both the evil and the good, and his rain to fall on both the just and the unjust.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that in contrast to human love, the love of God has nothing to do with the recipient. God loves somone not because he deserves it in any way, but because He is love. You could take the most wretched sinner in the world, and God still loves him. Hates the sin, but loves him. There are no conditions.

It is this sort of agape love that enabled our Lord Jesus, while He was being brutally nailed to the Cross, to say "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." In the face of evil, so may we I pray. So may we.

"Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."