Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Present in the Moment

It's been a while since I truly behaved like a tourist. While I was living in southeast Asia, it didn't take long until I embraced it as my home. A native is one who longer thinks it a novelty to eat the food, use the facilities, feel the weather, talk with the people. While on my trip to Europe with my family, however, we behaved like total tourists. One thing I noticed that tourists do is to live for the photo shot. The place in which one stands and the view that one behold is not really about the being present in the moment. It's about saving the picture digitally, to be shared and looked when you are no longer there.

I've noticed the same thing happening during New Years and National Days - any celebration involving fireworks. The dazzling displays explodes in the night skies, sending shafts of brilliantly coloured light across the black expanse speckled with twinkling stars. The human eye is really the only thing that can really take in that live-action shot in all its splendour. And the human soul is the only thing that can really appreciate its beauty. And what do we do? We spend the entire 30 seconds to 3 minutes of the fireworks display trying to capture the "perfect" shot in our cameras. Failure after failure, blurry shot after blurry shot, we stare not at the fireworks in the sky, but the 2X3 inch screen on which a crappy picture displays, proving over and over how inadequate the technology is compared to our eyes.

No camera can fully grasp the moment - not even close. It cannot reproduce the same light, the same sounds, the smells, the textures, the memories. And yet we devote the entire moment into force feeding the moment into digital memory, to be saved for another time, when we are not there anymore, when we cannot possibly experience that moment any longer.

Tragic, that we are not present in the moment. That we live not for the true moments, but for the fake ones. We live for those moment which are after the fact. We click and move on without truly beholding and we wonder why we don't remember the scene the way the picture depicts it.

Do we do the same thing with God? Are our musings about him but a click shot of trifling things about him and not a true beholding of him? Perhaps I am guilty of this when I engage in theology, or debate matters of doctrine and scripture. If my theology does not become a filling of myself with and an enjoyment of the excellencies of God, and a commitment to deeper worship and closer obedience, then has it done me any good? Have I not stored him away in a small box, having missed the point of being present in the moment?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Europe and the Christian situation

I'm currently in Germany visiting family, but in another way, I'm visiting family of another sort, treading upon the same earth as our ancestors of the western Christian tradition. These are the very lands that was home to Christianity for centuries, the birthplaces of doctrine and the great theologians of the faith. We owe so much to the believers who contended for and hammered out the essence of our faith in fires of affliction and controversy. Christianity had a large part to play in the flourishing of the sciences, health care, social justice intervention, economics, and academics. But now, the dazzling blaze of vibrant Christianity is but a fading shaft of light struggling to peak through the gloomy clouds of secularism. Europe is now largely post Christian. They say that on a given Sunday, there are more Anglicans worshipping in Nigeria, than in all of England, US and Canada COMBINED!

If anything can be learned from history, it's this: These things happen. It may shock the types of things that are possible in a fallen world. The fear, of course, is that history will repeat itself. One of the purposes of studying history is that it gives us a good idea of what to expect in the future. We asian believers and immigrants have believed on the testimony of American and European preachers who taught our forefathers so long ago. Such preachers are long gone but we have embraced their message and are running with it.

Will the same thing happen to us that happened to them? Will we find ourselves getting tired with the fad and lay Christianity behind us in pursuit of other things? One would think that when a society is transformed by the influence of its faith, as is the case with Europe, that the religion of the people would continue to likewise flourish. On the other hand, there are countries like Thailand, whose religion has done nothing to improve the quality of life of the people; but this very religion remains rock solid and impenetrable. How odd ...

Friday, July 24, 2009

on apostasy in the Christian church

These days, I'm encountering friends who are or questioning or leaving the faith. Perhaps the scariest thing of all is these are not the outcast and rebellious ones who used to smoke cigarettes outside of the church while the service was going on or the ones who dragged to church by their parents and later realized that they were neither genuine Christians nor even very sympathetic to the faith in the first place. In fact, they were the ones with whom I rubbed shoulders in ministry, who led outreaches, cell groups, Christian events; the ones who I saw weeping in repentance and who lifted their hands in fervent worship!

Now, they were bordering on atheism at worst, and agnosticism at best. Some common things I find about these friends, from what they related to me:

1. They are questioning the Church, its culture, its customs, its leadership.
2. They were a part of a parachurch organization, filled with fun and excitement, but only for a season.
3. They were confronted and hurt by Christian leaders.

My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will work in their hearts to revive them from the blindness they presently experience. In my theology of perseverance, those who are genuinely saved and inhabited by the Holy Spirit will never finally or ultimately fall into apostasy but will be preserved to the last day. It would utter sadness to know that these brothers who fought beside me in the trenches of ministry were never truly born again to begin with!

Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" (Matt. 7:21-23). This passage always struck me as sensational, something I never thought would actually happen. Only now do I how possible this scenario really is.

Perhaps the fundamental problem is that their entrance into faith was birthed within the context of a particular season or phase of life, or through the trappings of a well-done presentation of how exciting being a Christian can be. Now, it's not wrong that people come to faith because of a need in their life- indeed all genuine conversion must start with a deep sense of despair and helplessness. The problem is that the need was cosmetic and not fundamental: they sought Christ to fill a temporary and superficial need, be it a need for community, physical provision, a sense of calling. Once this need was met for a while by the religion called Christiantiy, the demands of the One called Christ began to be an impediment and obstacle to their real goals in life: to live for themselves. Rather than meeting the risen and glorified Christ, the exalted ruler of the universe who demands total allegiance, they met Christianity, the established institution that provided a momentary sense of belonging and purpose.

Yes, it's true that the Son of Man came not be served but to serve (Mark 10:45a). But read on ... "... and to give his life as a ransom for many." Once he ransomed us from our enslaved and pathetic state, he became exalted and we became free from sin so that we can be enslaved once again to a new Lord and King: Jesus. Hence, the Apostle Paul calls himself Doulos, slave of Christ Jesus.

Embracing Christianty is simply the easiest part. Embracing Christ, however, is much more demanding.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Michael Jackson

It's been almost 2 weeks since news of the death of Michael Jackson, and yet the news is still news. It's still being splashed on the billboards, CNN, music networks. His albums are still top of the charts and his pictures (the sightlier, not-so-recent ones, interestingly) are everywhere. All over the world people held memorials and candle-light vigils mourning the loss of this music icon. Tears were shed from L.A. to Tokyo, and some even travelled from Australia to stand with a crowd outside the Staples Centre - without a hope of getting in to watch to memorial service.

Why the hype, you ask?

You see, Michael Jackson, talented musician though he was, was more than a musician and dancer with some fancy moves. I remember the cover art of one of his albums, History. It was an apocalyptic scene where a statue of Michael Jackson stood towering against a night backdrop with tiny helicopters flying around and bright flood flight lit the area, though unable to capture the entire statue. On his right arm, the number 777, tatooed in all its arrogance.

They say there was not a person in the world who was not in someway touched by the character of Michael Jackson. He represented so much for so many people. Perhaps, in the final analysis, all he was a stark reminder of the idolatry that our generation is guilty of. The making for ourselves, images which we are familiar with to mask the terror of divine reality. In our day, we have seen great men. Human rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr, but few tears are shed for him; political heroes like Ghand and Winston Churchilli, but few tears are shed for them. In our day, who is the one in which lay so much of our concern and for whom we shed the most tears when he is gone?

The entertainer.

The one who was a sparkle to our eyes as we watched from the television screen or on the stage. We've along way it seems, in the opposite direction. The world seeks a Messiah. It always has. We seek a noble ruler, an unshakable kingdom; one in whom to pin our hopes. The world has lost the king of pop, and the mourning continues until today.

How very, very sad.

Monday, June 22, 2009

438 out of 6912 - lots to be done

Last week I was at a missions conference in Dallas Texas with an organization called Pioneer Bible Translators. They're sorta like Wycliffe, translating the Bible into never-before-heard-of languages all over the world, but they're a smaller and more manoeverable outfit. They're also committed to church planting as well.

Bible translation is a crazy task. I didn't realize all the issues that are involved in communicating truths from the biblical context to our today. In the west, or any Christian-influenced country, we have the benefit of centuries of religious jargon in our English language. We know the meaning of "faith" or "Amen." But what about a pre-literate nomadic people living somewhere in the sub-Sahara desert? There are languages who don't even have the verb to be, other languages don't use any abstract nouns at all. What a task it is to translate profound Biblical truths like justification by faith, or predestination.

But it can be done, and it must be done. God has a plan to gather people from every language, tribe and culture around his throne to worship him in their own native language. There are currently 6912 known languages in the world, but only 438 of those languages have a completed Bible. Many of these languages have never been learned about outsiders before. How then, as Paul says, are they to believe in the one whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without a preacher?

They say that less than 5% of all missionaries are serving among a people group who generally have never heard the gospel. They go to places that already have an established church, published Bibles and theological schools. All the while, there are thousands of people groups yet to have of the name "Jesus" translated into their dialect.

I've committed myself to going as a missionary, where I will barely be scratching the surface of the task that needs to be done. Who's coming with me?

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Atonement and the Love

Ephesians 5
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— 30for we are members of his body. 31"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

I've recently been pondering more and more about Christ's work on the cross, especially the question: For whom did Christ die? Those of us with any appreciation for the cross will agree that Jesus' crucifixion was big news, it made a big deal - all the difference in the world. My question has always been, Who reaped the benefits of Jesus' work? We naturally assume, The whole world, of course! Sinner, saint, the Pope in Rome, the Pygmy in Africa. Jesus died for everyone all the same.

But the above passage suggests differently. The kind of love that a husband shows his wife is not the same as kind he shows to his secretary, the door-to-door salesman, or the shoeshine boy. I know it's the 21st century and anything goes these days, but hey. Paul seems to be saying that it was love that propelled Jesus to lay down his life to sanctify his bride into a spotless splendour. But this wasn't any kind of two-bit love for just anyone, it was a husbandly love, the kind that sacrifices his own life for the sake of his wife, his own flesh. If a husband shows the same amount of affection for the stranger at the grocery check-out as for his wife, we call him a Playboy, a cheat, a fool. He doesn't deserve to be married.

Special deeds are motivated by a special love, directed to special people.

This is precisely in line with what we see in God's affection towards Israel in the Old Testament: special treatment for special people as a result of a special love. I'm not saying that God doesn't love those who are not his people. Psalm 145:9 says, "The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made." But, it seems clear that some enemies and non-Israelites weren't shown the same type of "love."

How does this fare with our assumptions about a general love of God for all humanity, or a general atonement made for all humanity? Of course, on the surface, it does sound better, more polite, more universal and makes everyone feel equally cuddled. But it just seems that the embrace of God's arms are more tightly wrapped around those he loves more.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Grudge

Why did God order to complete annihilation of the Amalekites in 1 Sam 15? Why order the Israelite army under Saul to "blot out their memory from under heaven?" Imagine you're an Israelite solider. If you're going to do your job correctly and obey the command of the Lord you and your platoon needs to raid a village, burn it to the ground. After breaking the door down, you first need to kill the man of the house. After him, take out the wife (maybe she's pregnant?), then the baby in the crib, the bed-ridden grandfather, the servant, and don't forget Mr. Whiskers the Cat. When you're finished in the house, your job is only half done. You need to go around back and care of the animals, but on your way, you find an Amalekite boy playing with his trucks - take him out. Then proceed to slaughter the cows, donkeys, camel and chickens.

Once you've made sure that nothing left is breathing. Move onto the next house.

In our modern language this type of act is called by many words: ethnic cleansing, genocide, holocaust. Take your pick. Such people who make this type of war are considered sociopaths, utterly depraved and terrible men against whom the world rushes to hang from the gallows.

But this is our God. How will we vindicate him? In our post WWII and 9/11 days, the thought of holy war, terror and ethnic cleansing freaks us out. The God of Abraham is not the most in-vogue figure around, and things are only going to get worse.

The reason given in the Bible for this act against the Amalekites was relatively quite simple: They were godless men who attacked the Israelites as they were coming out of Egypt, worn out and weary (Exo 17, Deut 25). God remembered that assault and made sure that Israel remembered it too. He vowed to pay them back for their offence once they settled in the land as a nation.

It was a 500 year grudge. Our God bears grudges. This is negative and repulsive to our 21st century sensitivities, and we want so much to ignore this aspect of God. To some Christians, this has led to embarrassment and a reformulation of theology altogether - one that keeps God "innocent" of such behaviour.

But this is our God. And before we slam down the gavel to judge him, let's consider it a bit more. The wrath of God is a function of two things: God's holiness and his Love. In his terror against the Amalekites, he shows us his disgust for godless sinners. In his 500 year-long grudge, he shows us his love toward his people. God is certainly good, and loving, and forgiving ... to Israel. and to us. Israel receives love. The Amalekites received wrath.

Is this only the God of the Old Testament? Not so! Consider another place where the wrath and love of God was expressed at the same time: The Cross. The ultimate display of God's wrath and love. Jesus received wrath. We received love. How terrible is the grudge of God, and how precious is the One who bore it for us.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Does the ends justify the means?

So, I'm currently living in small cluster of villages in Northern Thailand, about an hour away from Chiangrai. What am I doing there? Everyday I ask that question.

How am I going to stay there? Well, my supervisor's plan for me to obtain a visa to stay Thailand is creative. We approached a school in the nearby town asking for a position for me to teach part time as a volunteer, in exchange for a work permit. In short, they've agreed and I'll be going to a Thai consulate in Laos with a letter from the school that will get me my visa.

Here's the thing. In this letter will be written one line, just one small line, maybe 5 cm long stating the "salary" that I'll be receiving. Of course volunteers don't receive a salary. I'll probably get a complimentary lunch on my teaching days, but no salary as such.

So, the school must lie to the government in order to make it seem like I'm a bonavide teacher. What a way to do missions and testify to the truth: by lying. My supervisor tells me to "go along with it." But ultimately, I'm the one holding the visa and holding the responsibility. I'm the one with the power to call a halt to this whole thing. It would no doubt be seen as sabotage, and even I am not sure of my true motivation for doing this.

Those who are committed to the mission will say, "But this is what we need to in order to spread the gospel! We have no choice, it's just the way it is!"

Which takes precedence, integrity and submission to the government or the spread of the gospel? Jesus said to "Render the Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." Apparently, the things we render need not be mutually exclusive to either one. There must be a way to satisfy both.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What does God want?

If God had a personal will for our lives, or for each decision that we make, we would assume that he wants us to know it. How else would we find it, or be accountable for it?

Now, he could either make it obvious or not obvious.

I believe there was a time that he made it obvious and when people went along with it, salvation history was being made and the Bible was produced as a record. But this was an undeniable work of God's Spirit, and it could not have ever happened otherwise.

In our day, he could make his personal will for us obvious, but there are some problem to this. First, it could never be more obvious than what has gone before, namely, the revelation of Jesus. Hebrews 1:1-2 says, "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." Because Jesus has already been revealed, the authoritative word of God is established and nothing could ever match it. Second, there's still the problem of whether we, in our sinful state, would grasp or understand his revelation adequately or correctly in every instance. Lastly, and most importantly, it seems perfectly obvious, that God doesn't make his will perfectly obvious. Almost no one hears audible voices from God. Almost no one has miraculous burning bush or Damascus Road experiences.

So, it seems that if God reveals his will, he does it in a way that is not obvious. He is soft, subtle and often ambiguous. This means that it's up to Christians to "figure" out his will. Let's be honest some more. After all the praying and fasting, the putting out of fleeces, the asking of many counselors, the discerning of circumstances, the dipping in the Bible for divine words stripped out of their context, how many of us can say that God's will becomes perfectly clear and obvious, no room for error. Most occasions, we can say that we "feel" or "sense" God's leading, but it's really not all that obvious. Perhaps oftentimes, God's guidance is so subtle, that it can be easily manipulated through our own desires, rationalizations, suspicions and calculations. Faith, risk, and uncertainty are always involved.

In the end, what can we really know? We're back to what we do know: 1. God is sovereign. 2. God has revealed the commands he wants us to obey. 3. God is good.

What are some implications that we can draw from these truths?

1. Whatever you do, obey God's commands. And when you obey them, obey with fullness of joy and comfort in knowing that this is certainly what he wants you to do.
2. Go for it and make some bold moves for his Kingdom.
3. Don't fret about the decision errors you've made - God doesn't make any.
4. Whatever happens, God is at work to bring you the greatest good and himself the greatest glory.
5. Don't put yourself deliberately into a situation of strife unless you already have a sense of joy and hope in God's end-product.
6. Focus on walking with God. This is the clear thing that he wants us to work on. The rest of life are basically entertainment decisions.
7. At the end of the day, the person who hears voices and puts out fleeces (whether by God's actual intervention or not), and the person who doesn't, will end up in basically the same place.

God's will and why we want to know it

Let's think about the will of God.

We know God has a will. In fact, according to the Bible, there are at least two senses in which the will of God is described. One is his sovereign will of decree, which is his overarching and grand plan that will certainly come to pass in and through the tiny, minuscule happenings of the universe. Every event from photosynthesis happening in algae to 9-11 in New York, God is ordaining all things to happen according to his will, and his plans are reaching a glorious and purposeful terminal point. A second kind of will are his commands. It is his will for us is to be like Christ, to behave according to his moral standards, and to do good works. Unlike the sovereign will, his moral will can be, and is often, thwarted and disobeyed by his free creatures.

We also know that as Christians we want to know God's will in another sense, that is, his will for our lives. Which school should I choose? Which job should I take? Who should I marry?

Let's think about this for a second. First, of all, let's ask: why do we want God to reveal to us these things? Is it because we want to position ourselves most strategically for his Kingdom, to maximize our effectiveness and reach in winning people to Christ? Is it because we want to be in those places that will best challenge us to live holier lives of greater purity? Maybe some people actually do think this way, but most of us don't.

So why do we want to know God's will? I think we simply want to have the happiest life possible. Now, this not the happiness that Christians often equate with sensual pleasure, rather, it's the happiness which comes from being in the right vocation where you're using your gifts and talents to maximum and making an impact on systems and societies; it's the happiness that comes with being with the right person and enjoying lifelong partnership together. We seek the happiness of living life efficiently, smoothly and with little struggle. Let's be real. Isn't this what we all want? When we seek to make "wise" decisions, by following the advice of Proverbs for example, isn't it for the purpose of maximizing happiness and minimizing strife in life?

If this is so, then we think that it would be best if we knew the future. And who's the only person we know that knows the future and is planning its outcome? Exactly. Hence, we seek God's will because of our desire to maximize happiness in life.

Of course, while the Bible has a lot to say about the pursuit of happiness and blessed living, it also has much to say about suffering. So, there's a balance to everything, but for now, let's just admit that we seek God's will to our own personal happiness. It's sounds a little selfish and unchristian, but I think it's true.