On Driving Tests and the Pursuit of Perfection in Life

Bloged in Church, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Wednesday August 20, 2014

I recall a somewhat sombre conversation with a good friend back in April 2012. Reflecting on some of his bad decisions, he felt like giving up on the pursuit of perfection because, he said, life was like an endless driving test in which we keep accumulating errors till we reach a point of failure. These were the reflections that I posted thereafter :

“Life may feel like a driving test that never ends, and which one can never pass. But it is not a test we could have passed on our own to begin with. That is why we were given an unconditional pass from the outset through Jesus Christ. Not so that we can keep hitting the curb at whim, but so that we can keep practising and become better drivers.”

More recently, another friend I think - my memory fails me - asked in jest if I judged him for his mistakes. I said I did not, that everyone has a dark side, and the point is to never give up trying to become better persons. My reflections on this separate later conversation were :

“Everyone has a dark side. Hopefully we never stop trying to be better persons despite it. And how might we stop trying? One way is to feel so lousy about ourselves that we give up on ourselves and trying to be better. The other is to think that we are so perfect that there is no need for any improvement. Both are sad outcomes, though chances are that while the former hurts mainly himself, the latter is also a prick to the people around him.”

To paraphrase Lance Armstrong - (the pain from) setbacks or failures of the moment are temporary, but quitting is forever. I don’t think God ever desires any person to give up on being better. If He did the Bible would have ended with Exodus, on Mount Sinai, where God give to Moses the moral law and in particular the Ten Commandments, which lofty standards (most) people would be unable to comply with to the last letter and would eventually give up on.

What God did instead was send Jesus Christ, whose life, death on the cross and resurrection offer hope – hope that we can put our past behind us, and hope and that we can transform and become better persons even if change comes by fits and starts, before we are finally made perfect when we see God face to face.

(Sermon) Our Calling to be a Priesthood of Believers

Bloged in Church, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles, Society by Mel Monday August 11, 2014

Good morning.

I want to start today by going back to the church I worshipped at as a teenager. It was a church of the Brethren denomination, which is rather traditional in outlook. The only accompaniment during worship was a piano and we sang only hymns. Some women wore veils and it was unimaginable for anyone - whether male or female - to step into church wearing bermudas or shorts, like I did last week. So today I’m glad to be worshipping in a church today that does not judge me by my outward appearance or by how sinful my past is, but which sees the potential for Godly transformation through God’s eyes. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be standing here.

Anyway, back to my previous church. The most distinctive feature of Sunday service was this 30 - 45 minute segment which had nothing planned in advance. That means, no worship, no announcements and no sermon was planned. Every believer would sit quietly in his orher chair reflecting on God and, as the Holy Spirit inspired a believer, he would step up to the microphone and read a passage from the Bible, share atestimony or lead the church to sing a hymn.

I found out that this unique practice was inspired by 1 Peter 2 : 9, a passage inthe Bible that refers to Christians as a “royal priesthood” or what Christians refer to as the “priesthood of believers”. This means that God intends for all of us tobe priests before Him. Of course, there will be a role of some of us to be “chief priests” in the sense of pastors and full time ministers. However, God intends that all of us should be capable of guiding others in the truth, and praying with authority. This was tremendously exciting for me as a teenager whom adults tended to ignore or see as a nuisance. Suddenly, my identity was defined by the fact that God saw me as a “priest”, instead of how other people looked at me. Suddenly, my actions, my prayers and my words could be inspired by God, in the way that God inspired the elders of the church.

I want to share with what it means to be called as a priest before God today – a calling that as much belongs to me, as to you, and to our pastor. Now, turn to your neighbour, look him in the eye, and say “you are a priest before God”. Let’s open in prayer.

***

For those of you who watch Chinese period dramas, can you tell me what this is? This is a picture of the Temple of Heaven in China which, translated from Chinese, literally means “Altar of Heaven”. It is a place I hope to visit one day. Every year, the Emperor of China would visit the temple where he would fast for three days, before entering the temple to make a sacrifice and pray that Shang Di (or supreme god) would bless China with good weather and good harvests. In doing so, the Emperor of China became more than just a ruler. He became a priest –a representative to plead for his people before God.

The worship of gods through priests was not unique to Chinese culture. It can be found in almost every society or culture with some variation. Underlying all these religious systems was (i) an intuitive longing by people to make a connection with the Creator-God and (ii) a sense that, because the Creator-God is so much greater than us, He was prepared to only listen to selected people, which are the priests.

A. THE LEVITICAL PRIESTHOOD

God changed that when He appeared to the Israelites. You would know that in Exodus, God rescued the Israelites from Egypt. In Exodus 19, they arrived at Mount Sinai. This is the mountain where God would later give Moses the Ten Commandments. Before Moses climbed up to meet with God, God told the Israelites : “You shall be for me a kingdom of priests”. In other words, unlike other belief systems around them, God did not want to create a special group of people that He would only listen to - He wanted every Israelite to be a priest. As a priest, every individual would have access to God and would have a personal relationship with God. As a priest, every individual would have the authority to represent non-believers before God, and to speak the words of God.

Sadly, this did not work out as planned. Moses came down from Mount Sinai expecting the Israelites to be waiting eagerly to hear what God had revealed to him. Instead, Moses found the Israelites worshipping idols. The Israelites got bored of waiting, and decided to make idols of their own to worship. Partly because of this disobedience, God had to postpone his original plan for people to approach Him freely. The tribe of Levi was appointed to serve as priests, and anyone who wanted to worship God had to present an offering at the temple through the priest. The “Levitical” in “Levitical Priesthood” refers to the tribe of “Levi”.

However, even in this less than ideal priesthood in Israel was an important difference from other belief systems at that time. In many other belief systems, the role of priests was to perform rituals to appease an angry god or to plead for protection or blessing. In these other religions, the priests represented gods who could be bribed into doing what a person wanted – if you were rich or powerful enough to bring the right offering – or who was detached or had mood swings and needed to be pacified, or who had no regard for human life which, in the most extreme cases, meant the making of human sacrifices.

The God of Israel changed that. To Israel, the priests represented a merciful and compassionate God. While other gods treated people erratically, the God of Israel established an unchanging standard of moral perfection. God gave Israel the Ten Commandments and other laws, which till today forms the basis for many laws in society. The fact that God is unchanging and that thelaws of creation can be understood, is what gave birth to modern science – because when Newton came up with his theory of gravity he knew that an apple that fell out of a free, it wouldn’t fall to the ground one day, fly up to the sky the next, and divide into two pieces which fly off in different directions on another day.

At the same time, this was a God who was merciful because He knew that the Israelites would never be able to keep to all His moral standards perfectly, and provided a way out. This way out was the system of animal sacrifices through the priests by which the Israelites could redeem themselves. That is why, in Exodus 34:6, the Israelites remember God as

“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generations.”

B. THE PRIESTHOOD OF JESUS CHRIST

But as I mentioned just now, this Levitical Priesthood was not the ideal that God had in mind at the beginning. God was still distant. The Israelites could not approach and worship Him directly; they had to go through priests.

During the Japanese occupation of Singapore, the commoners had to bow whenever they encountered a Japanese soldier in public. If you met a Japanese soldier and did not bow, you would be beaten up. The harshness of this law served to remind commoners that the Japanese were the absolute rulers of Singapore at that time.

In the same way, the Israelites had to make regular - daily - sacrifices at the temple through the priests for their sins. Every bloody animal sacrifice, every day, several times a day, was a reminder of the separation between God and man, and of how far the Israelites fell short of God’s standards of moral perfection. Can you imagine if you had to bring a cow or sheep to church and ask the pastor to sacrifice that for you every Sunday? The blood, the noise and the mess would be a very visual reminder of how separate you are from God.

Then Jesus came and changed that. At the end of His ministry on earth, Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, once and for all. In comparing the Levitical Priesthood and the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, the writer of Hebrews said :

“… those [ animal ] sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.

Therefore, when Christ came into the world … He set aside the first [ system of sacrifices ] to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all. For when this priest [ Jesus Christ ] offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God.” (v 3- 4 and 11 - 12 , verses reordered)

At the time that Jesus died on the cross, the curtain that separated the holiest part of the temple in Jerusalem from the rest of the temple, was supernaturally torn into two. That holiest part of the temple, which is called the Holy of Holies, was a special place the only the High Priest of Israel could enter once a year, to meet God. The torn curtain symbolized that Jesus had removed the barrier and the Levitical Priesthood that separated man from God, so that Christians today may approach God directly, and have a direct personal relationship with Him.

The first way that the Levitical Priesthood was imperfect was its daily reminder of the distance between God and man. The other way in which the Levitical Priesthood was imperfect, was how the priests and religious teachers substituted God’s mercy with an uncompassionate system in which the they distanced themselves from ordinary men, and created religious regulations that effectively left people without hope, and prevented people from drawing close to God.

Then Jesus came and changed all that.

Whereas the priests and religious teachers - the Sadduccees and Pharisees - in Jesus’ time condemned and rejected anyone who did not conform to their view of what makes a “good person”, the writer of Hebrews referred to Jesus as theHigh Priest who -

“shared in [ our ] humanity … fully human in every way … a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God… Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (2 : 17 - 18)

“… a great High Priest … [ who is able ] to sympathise with our weaknesses, [ who ] was tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (4 : 14 - 15)

In Luke 7, Jesus was having dinner at a Pharisee’s house when a woman “who led a sinful life” entered the house uninvited. She went up to Jesus, wet his feet with her tears and with perfume that she had brought, and wiped it with her hair. If this happened in church today I think we’d all be shocked. You can imagine how the conservative guests at the dinner, who were also religious teachers, felt - they were scandalised. Some choked on their food, while others muttered : if Jesus is really a prophet, if Jesus is really a Godly person, He would know how sinful this woman is and stay away from her. What Jesus did instead was the exact opposite. Instead of pushing away the woman who came to Him in great distress and at the risk of being humiliated, He graciously accepted her scandalous act of worship, and said to her : “your faith has saved you, go in peace” (Luke 7 : 50).

The Levitical Priesthood degenerated into a system in which the priests distanced themselves from men, and created rules that distanced men from God.

The Priesthood of Jesus Christ, in contrast, saw Jesus draw close to men, and draw men to God. Jesus deliberately immersed Himself in the whole spectrum of human experience, in order to identify with us.

Some of us come from broken families. Jesus was the boy who was sniggered at for being born before his father married his mother.

Some of us struggle to earn enough for ourselves or for our families. Jesus was the boy who had to go to bed hungry on days when his father’s business was bad.

Some of us struggle with self-esteem and being bullied. Jesus was the teenager whom adults laughed at, because they could not believe that a young and unschooled teenager could have anything meaningful to tell them about God. When Jesus started His ministry, He became the man whom members of His hometown despised, because they could not believe that the (illegitimate) son of a carpenter could become anyone important in life.

Some of us are treated unfairly. Jesus was the man who had to constantly put up with vicious accusations that He was a drunkard, a sinner and a demoniac although He led a life of perfect integrity.

Some of us struggle with personal weaknesses and bad habits, between living selfishly and living honourably, between living only for ourselves and living to bless others around us. Jesus was the man who had to constantly struggle between taking a short, easy route to success, and the longer, much harder route of glory through self-sacrifice. And at the end of all this, Jesus suffered and experienced the very same death that we see around us, and which we will personally experience in our lifetime.

Through Jesus, God was no longer distant or detached, but Immanuel – “God with us”. In John 14 : 9, Jesus told His disciples “whoever has seen Me has seen the Father”. As High Priest, Jesus represented not just the truth of God, but the loving, merciful and compassionate presence of God. Instead of avoiding the tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, lepers and other sinners, Jesus – God Himself – intentionally spent time with people whom the Pharisees and Sadducees had rejected, listening to what they struggled with in their daily lives, and offering the presence and grace and hope of God in place of condemnation and hopelessness.

And because we have Jesus as our High Priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses yet without sin, we are now covered with the love and hope of God. All of us may “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4 : 15 - 16).

C. THE PRIESTHOOD OF BELIEVERS

The Priesthood of Jesus Christ – His identification with us and His sacrifice on the cross – brings us back to the original plan of God. If you recall, when God first brought the Israelites out of Egypt, He intended that they should be a kingdom of Priests. The Israelites failed miserably, and the imperfect Levitical Priesthood was put in place. Jesus then came to bring to completion – by His death and resurrection on the cross – what a system of animal sacrifices could not.

The writer of Hebrews excitedly declared the fulfillment of God’s original plan through the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, by quoting from the prophet Jeremiah –

“I will put my law in their minds, and write in on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest.” (Jeremiah 31 : 33 - 34 / Hebrews 8 : 8 - 12 and 10 : 16).

This means that it is no longer necessary for people to approach God through a priest. Everyone can approach and know God. From the least to the greatest, everyone can have a personal relationship with God. Furthermore, knowledge of God would no longer be the exclusive domain of priests and religious teachers. From the least to the greatest, God will impart spiritual knowledge and wisdom – knowledge of the law – to everyone.

Therefore,in 1 Peter 2 : 9, Peter wrote that to the Christians saying that -

“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.”

and in the closing book of the Bible, Revelation, Christians are reminded again that God -

“loves us and has freed us from our sins, and has made us to be a kingdom of priests to serve His God and Father” (Revelation1 : 6).

God wants us, as Christians today, to step up to our calling to serve as priests. He wants, first of all, for us to have a personal relationship with Him. Then He wants us to impart spiritual wisdom and knowledge to our lives, but for this to happen we have to be disciplined in reading the Bible, meditating on its words, and in spending time with God in prayer.

Then God wants us to fulfill our priestly calling by blessing the people around us. But this should not just be about fulfilling the traditional role of priests in proclaiming the truth. Sometimes I get the sense that the church sees its responsibility to be only about telling everyone to be good : do not lie, do not steal, do not kill, do not commit adultery, and respect your parents. If it ends there, all you have is the Levitical model of Priesthood : impose religious law, and keep your distance.

I believe God desires more than that. He wants us to follow the model of Priesthood that Jesus established. He wants us to live with integrity, and not just proclaim it, which is what Jesus did. He wants us to bless others with our time, our resources, and our talents, which is what Jesus did when He helped the poor and the sick. Today we do the same thing as a church when we give tuition to children in our neighbourhood, and support the children’s orphanage and education in Myanmar.

And God wants us to walk with people who are hurting and rejected, and deal with them in compassion, in the same way that Jesus did. The fact that some of these people do not seem to be “good people”, in that they might have made mistakes or bad choices in life or have bad habits, should not make a difference. Because Jesus did not just come to tell people to be good. If Jesus had stopped there, He would be no different from the priests and religious teachers. The tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, lepers and other sinners – the people who society rejected as “bad” – would remain rejected and condemned. They would continue to be excluded from faith.

Jesus came to give people hope – hope that they can put their past behind them and that, through Jesus Christ, they can transform and become better persons, and finally be made perfect when we see God face to face.

Some of you might have read the thoughts that I posted on Facebook about two weeks ago while preparing for today’s message. I asked : as Singapore grows older and celebrates her 49th birthday, how do Christians see themselves grow with her? Does God’s calling for Christians to be a “kingdom of priests” have any meaning for us?

In connection with this point on walking with people and imparting hope, a large part of the National Day Parade yesterday was, coincidentally and for a change, about hope and second chances – helping Singaporeans to be the best that they can be, especially for those who have suffered setbacks in life, and who need hope and encouragement and another chance to get their life in order. For example, there was a video of the Navy serviceman who lost his limbs speaking about his recovery, and of a former criminal offender studying to qualify as a lawyer.

As we reflect at God’s calling for us to be a kingdom of priests, and the model of priesthood established by Jesus Christ, I see so much potential for the church to do good – to not just proclaim good from a distance, but to do good by walking with people, empathizing with their struggles, and giving them hope in Jesus Christ.

On Empathy and Compassion

Bloged in Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Thursday July 31, 2014

I recall reading news of complaints pouring in some time ago, following an announcement that fees to qualify in a certain profession would be raised. I remember telling a friend that I could not see what the fuss was about - most of the members of that profession could easily afford the fees once upon starting work and a good number of employers in any case would pay for or subsidise the fee. My friend’s gentle rebuke was that I should not assume that everyone would be able to afford the increase in fees or that employers will (help) pay for everyone, and that she may well have been one of those who would struggle to pay those fees.

Her gentle rebuke was a reminder that I had failed to empathize - that I had fallen into the trap of assuming that every person’s situation is like what I had observed the majority’s to be. That while the increase in fees may have been reasonable for certain reasons, I should not dismiss the possibility that it may cause hardship for some people.

Empathy - the ability to identify with the thoughts and feelings of others - followed by compassion - a feeling of deep sympathy for someone who is having a hard time usually with a desire to alleviate that hardship, are words I hear mentioned quite often nowadays. And that the Government lacks it. And that Singaporeans sometimes lack it as well (which if true simply means that we have elected into Government representatives not very different from ourselves - something to reflect on whenever we accuse the state of lacking compassion).

We’re trying to improve that, happily, by encouraging people to give up their seats on the public trains and buses to others who need it more, return trays at foodcourts, and by giving more generously to and volunteering more with charities. From a secular perspective, it’s a good start.

Turning to the church, what does empathy and compassion look like in the Christian context? I think Jesus set a higher standard. When we think of empathy and compassion, one reference point is the account of Jesus and the adulteress in John 8 : 1 - 11. The religious leaders at that had caught a woman in the act of adultery, for which the penalty was death (by stoning). They brought her before Jesus, and asked Him how she should be dealt with. Jesus’ response is well known even to many non-Christians. While the people around Him were clamouring for the woman to be stoned, Jesus bent down and drew in the dirt with His finger. Then, He looked up at them and said,

“If any one of you is without sin, let Him cast the first stone”.

At this, the crowd started to leave. When only Jesus and the woman were left, He told the woman,

“… Has no one condemned you? Then neither do I … Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Jesus’ response is radical, not only in how it demonstrates divine grace and pardon. It is radical because it was (and is) so counterintuitive to human nature to treat with compassion people who are in situations different from our own, particularly in the quasi-theocratic society that Jesus was in, organized along principles of religious legalism.

In this connection, Job had remarked that “men at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those who are slipping” (Job 12:5).

Therefore, as much as empathy and compassion in Christians can be “inspired” by the Holy Spirit, I believe that there must be fertile soil in a believer’s heart and spirit to nourish it; empathy and compassion are not likely to blossom at moment’s notice in a vacuum.

The account of Jonah reminds us that it is more easy to ignore, if not withdraw from or condemn people in their difficult situations, when the opposite response - empathy and compassion - are required. So when God instructed Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh, Jonah did the exact opposite - he tried to get as far away from Nineveh as he could. And when God cornered Jonah into preaching to Nineveh and the city repented, Jonah sulked at God’s extension of grace to a city that he thought did not deserve it.

How many of us, at work, respond impatiently instead of graciously to colleagues who struggle at work because of a difficulty at home, like a sick child or parent? How many of us, at home, deal graciously with our children, spouses, siblings and parents when they do things that irritate us? How many of us, outside of work and home, would (quietly) swear at a foreign worker who gets in the way of traffic or who takes up a seat on public transport or space in a public area, instead of thinking graciously that he needs a space in our society as much as we do? Not everyone, or perhaps not even many of us, will be able to identify with the other person, and respond compassionately.

But Jesus could. And I believe He could do so not only because ofthe inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but because His heart and spirit had been nourished by what He personally saw and experienced as a human person and in walking with the common folk, and not apart from or above them. The author of Hebrews wrote that Jesus chose to identify with our humanity and brokenness, in order empathize with our weaknesses and deal with us compassionately.

In identifying with our humanity, Jesus became the boy who was sniggered at for being born out of seemingly illegitimate relationship. He became the boy who had to go to bed hungry on a bad day because His family was too poor to even afford the standard offering of a lamb for His birth. He became the boy whom adults laughed at, because they could not believe that a young and unschooled could have anything meaningful to tell them about God. He became the man whom members of His hometown despised because they could not believe a carpenter’s (illegitimate) son would amount to anything. He became the man who had to constantly put up with vicious accusations that He was a drunkard, a sinner and a demoniac although He led a life of perfect integrity. He became the man who had to constantly struggle between taking the short, easy route to fame and glory, and the longer, immeasurably harder route of suffering and death - the very same death that we around us and which we will personally experience in our lifetime.

Consequently, in Jesus’ every encounter with the sick, the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the grieving, and the lost, Jesus knew exactly what to do and say to bring comfort, healing and hope, and to draw people to God, notwithstanding that He did not always offer an immediate solution.

In “Compassion”, a book I read about three years go, the authors encourage Christians to think of empathy and compassion beyond the terms of offering immediate solutions, and in fact regardless of whether we can provide any solutions in this lifetime. Instead, they challenge Christians to emulate the authentic faith of Jesus Christ by walking alongside the sufferings and struggles of the people around us, and by offering hope and healing to the human spirit and heart. These were my reflections from reading the book back in 2011 :

“I found some time today to finish two chapters of a new book, “Compassion” by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill and Douglas Morrison.

Although written in 1982, its words are still amazingly refreshing. The authors first suggest that compassion is more than general kindness or tenderheartedness; it means “to suffer with”. It means :

“going to where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokeness, fear, confusion, and anguish … to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears … to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human”.

Reflecting on one of Jesus’ names, “Immanuel” or “God with us” (Matthew 1 : 23) — something which should be fresh on most of our minds given that Christmas has just only passed — the authors say :

“God is a compassionate God. This means, first of all, that our God has chosen to be God-with-us. … When do we receive real comfort and consolation? Is it when someone teaches us how to think or act? Is it when we receive advice about where to go or what to do? Is it when we hear words of reassurance and hope? Sometimes, perhaps. But what really counts is that in moments of pain and suffering someone stays with us. More important than any particular action or word of advice is the simple presence of someone who cares. When someone says to us in a midst of a crisis, ‘I do not know what to say or what to do, but I want you to realise that I am with you, that I will not leave you alone,’ we have a friend through whom we can find consolation and comfort. … [ so ] when we say that God is a God-with-us [ we mean ] a God who came to share our lives in solidarity. It does not mean that God solves our problems, shows us the way out of our confusion, or offers answers for our many questions. God might do all that, but the solidarity of God consists in the fact that God is willing to enter with us into our problems, confusions, and questions. That is the good news of God’s taking human flesh [ in the person of Jesus Christ or ' Immanuel', God-with-us ].”

I think as Christians we sometimes feel disappointment with God because we live with the expectation that God will intervene supernaturally, to change our lives, the people around us, or our difficult circumstances, but God does not.

However, the opening chapters of this book remind me that God is a personal God, more interested in walking in compassionate companionship with us, rather than solving immediate physical problems while leaving the human heart calloused and unchanged. When Jesus was physically present on earth, He did not heal every sick person, or eradicate hunger and poverty, or overthrow unjust rulers. Rather He lived and walked amongst the people as a common and humble citizen of Jewish society under a Roman government, interacting and teaching and healing people at a mostly individual or small group level. His most expansive miracle, in fact, was to multiply food to feed 7,000 hungry people who had listened to Him teach till it was too late for dismiss them so that they could get their own dinners. But that hardly came close to eradicating hunger and poverty throughout the Roman empire.

It is this personal, compassionate God which Christians must seek and seek to emulate in their lives, and not the more popular but somewhat distorted idea of an instant noodles type, just-add-water god and naive religious faith.”

A Kingdom of Priests?

Bloged in Church, Faith, Musings, Society by Mel Tuesday July 29, 2014

As Singapore draws close to her 49th year of independence, what do her Christians see their role to be in her future? I’ve recently been quite drawn to this passage in Exodus 19 : 6, in which God tells the Israelites -

“And you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests …”

- a calling that the Israelites did not eventually fulfill, and which was later replaced by the inferior Levitical priesthood.

Interestingly, we hear this phrase again at the end of the Bible, but with reference more generally to believers :

“To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood, and has made us to be a kingdom of priests …” (Revelations 1 : 5, 6. Note that some English translations render this as “kingdom and priests”.)

Do Christians here and elsewhere have a calling and destiny as priests? (The operative word here is “priests”, not “Pharisees”). What does that mean?

I think it’s something worth thinking about.

On the Anniversary of the Month that I Started Work

Bloged in Work Gripes by Mel Thursday July 24, 2014

July marks the month in which I started my first job many years ago and, coincidentally, the month in which I started all my subsequent jobs including my current one. While not all my experiences at work have been pleasant ones, I am grateful that even harsh experiences have not made me bitter or resigned, and for those lessons that I have gleaned in what not to do at work, including how people should not be treated.

I also recall that on my very first overseas business trip, which must have been less than six months after I started work, the lawyer on the other side telling me over dinner that in work, we are sometimes required to rise to the level of competence of experienced professionals, though we may be completely new to a job.

This may not be a very fair expectation, but not every encounter in life is “fair”. All we can do is the best that we can, while leaving the outcome to God. In this connection, I am thankful to not have fallen too far below the minimum level of competence, even when working on matters that I have had little prior experience in.

On this note, these reflections from July two years ago continue to be true of my life and work today :

“The third week of July marks my fourth year in the current job, and my twelth year of being gainfully employed.

Twelve years ago, I would never have imagined myself where I am today. By this I do not refer to having accomplished tremendous wealth or success at work - I think many of my peers are earning or achieving more - but life taking a path quite different from what I had imagined when I first started work.

It is possible for a person to be tremendously rich and successful yet “eat but not be satisfied … store up but save nothing … plant but not harvest” (Micah 6 : 14, 15).

However, even in the “leaner” periods of my working life, I do not think I have felt tremendous dissatisfaction, or lacked enough to give to causes which I consider worthy.

And so, for these twelve good years, I thank God.”

Loving People into Belief

Bloged in Faith, Musings by Mel Sunday July 13, 2014

"In the end, we love people into belief.  We do not argue them into belief." (Tim Keller)

Easter Reflections

Bloged in Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Saturday April 19, 2014

Evil and suffering do not necessarily turn people away from God. In fact, I think they draw people to God, because in the face of evil and suffering, we are inclined to seek a Person greater than ourselves and our current circumstances.

However, there is an evil that turns people away from God, and that is religious hypocrisy. Through religious hypocrisy Christians project a god who holds and rewards people according to double standards, and according to their ability to adhere to external rules and conventions rather than the true inclinations of their hearts. Such a god holds no hope or attraction for those seeking an answer to the evil and suffering in their lives.

Perhaps that is why Jesus reserved His harshest words for the Pharisees : because religious hypocrisy was not merely a personal sin - it was a sin that could corrupt and turn whole generations away from God. "You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter heaven", Jesus warned, "nor will you let those enter who are trying to." (Matthew 23 : 13) As we as Christians celebrate the triumph of the cross over sin on Good Friday and Easter over this long weekend, let us be humbled by the reminder that it was our forefathers - the Pharisees - that nailed Jesus to the cross. Let us also be humbled by the recognition that unlike other wrongs, the sin of religious hypocrisy and self-righteousness is one that only a Christian, or someone who calls himself one, can commit.

And may the Father forgive us for those wrongs that we may have done without knowing what we do.

(Sermon) Peace in Troubled Times

Good morning. I’m going to share today on how we can have "Peace in Troubled Times", mainly from John 13 - 15. It’s always very difficult to speak on such a heavy topic. I’m not sure where to start, and whenever we don’t know what we do, we pray. So let us open with a word of prayer.

[ Prayer ]

Have you ever had the experience of your world falling apart?  Let me share with you two experiences I had from the early years of my working life.  As you all know, I work as a lawyer.  However, I never wanted to practise commercial law.  As an idealist I told myself that making money wasn’t the most important thing in life so I studied international law instead. After all, what can be more important than world peace, human rights and saving the environment?

My first job after graduation was advising on international law in the Government service and in my mind I thought that this was it - that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life : international law as a career civil servant. Unfortunately things didn’t work out as I planned.

My first boss was not an easy person to work with and after one-and-a-half rather tense years he one took offense at an e-mail that I sent.  Within a minute of receiving it he called me to his room and said that it was not possible for us to work together (but in not such nice words).  I broke down inside and had to stop myself from crying in front of him (post-message note : I was young and naïve then).  Within a week I was posted to another department to do civil and commercial law.  This was the first deviation from my work aspirations.

The change fortunately didn’t turn out badly for me.  I surprisingly did very well in my new role and in my annual performance assessments, my scores went up year after year.  In my fifth year of work, out of a maximum score of 5, I got something above 5 due to bonus "points" for certain ad hoc projects.  I thought then that for all the work I had put in, I should get a promotion or at least a more substantial performance bonus. Now, our head of department would walk around giving out envelopes with news of our performance bonus inside.  I remember clearly that he came up to my desk, shook my hand, and congratulated me. After he walked away, I tore open the envelope in excitement and saw - to my disappointment - that I received less performance bonus than the year before.  I was insulted - we are not a Communist country and people are should not be paid the same regardless of their contribution! 

My world again collapsed. I remember being so upset that day that I drove into a one way street in the wrong direction. I’m fortunate to not have killed anyone or myself.

Have you ever had the experience of your world or your dreams falling apart?  If you have, it’s not new.  Not because of what I’ve just shared, but because of what the disciples of Jesus went through 2,000 years ago.

It was the day before Jesus was going to be crucified, though of course no one knew that except Jesus. Jesus had just washed their feet. Then, as the whole group sat down for supper, Jesus broke the bad news : someone was going to betray Him, and He was going to leave them.

The disciples had been with Jesus, almost every day of their life, for the last 3 years. They ate and slept together. They served the community together. They preached and even performed miracles together. They were becoming famous together.  Some of them even harboured the hope that Jesus would start a revolution against the Roman government that would restore the kingdom of Israel to Jewish rule, with all these disciples as His ministers in government.  And just as they were so so close to victory, one of them was going to betray Jesus? And Jesus would leave them? These are Jesus’ exact words from John 13 -

21 After He had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.” … 33 “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews so I tell you now : Where I go, you cannot come.

It’s like having your fiance breakup with you on the eve of your wedding. Or discovering that the person you’re in love with and hoping to marry is cheating on you and attached to someone else. Or being told that someone you really care about is critically ill.  Or confronting the reality of divorce or loss of a job. Or discovering that you can’t have kids because of a medical condition. Or suffering a mental breakdown. Or even, as Pastor Chong Yew told me before, some people have approached him and told him that they just can’t bring themselves to be interested in the opposite sex – that they’re gay.

Suddenly the whole world falls apart.  Dreams of a life together, dreams of what it means to be in love, dreams of a perfect family, dreams of doing great things in a particular job – all fall apart.

I remember a friend who was crying and crying as he told us - a group of friends – about his broken marriage. His words were, “I’m sorry – I’ve never done this before”. 

There are some disappointments or setbacks in life that happen only once, and that we can never be fully prepared for.  But God does not leave us alone. This is what Jesus told His disciples.

Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14 : 14)

Jesus said that I will give you peace to cope with your circumstances.  It does not mean that your problems will be solved overnight, or that your problem will be solved at all. But you will have peace to go through this phase of life.

But first, let’s look at the peace that the world gives. Putting God aside, what makes people secure or feel at peace?  They may find security in their achievements, wealth, talents, influence, or even their "goodness".  They may feel secure about themselves because they fit a certain mould of what it means to be good in society.  For example : married with kids, financially independent, filial towards parents, and active in community service.

In periods of instability, such as a loss of a job, people may find security in past precedents of their success (eg. how easy it was to get another job in the past), or savings to tide them over a difficult period.

1.  Our Security in Christ

But what about Christians - what does or where should our peace firstly come from? It comes from our security in Jesus Christ. Let’s read the two verses there -

“But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14 : 26)

“Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put His Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (2 Corinthians 1 : 21, 22)

In John 14, the disciples were troubled that they would be left alone and Jesus would not be around to guide them. So Jesus assured them that they would have His Holy Spirit to remind them of everything.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul elaborates on what the Holy Spirit is to all of us as Christians. It is God’s seal of ownership on us. It is like God putting His stamp and signature on our lives, saying : this person belongs to me. No one is supposed to take him away from my love. And I will come back for Him one day.

Without Christ, people find their security in their achievements, their talents, their wealth and their influence. Take that away, and many become insecure. We will become insecure too – we will lose our peace – if we rely on what we have or what we own to make ourselves feel good. But if we look to Christ for our security, then we will have peace even if our achievements, wealth, influence or talent are taken away from us. This is because the love of God for us will never change.

So what if I didn’t get the promotion? So what if I don’t earn as much as other people? And even if, in a moment of carelessness or foolishness, you make a costly mistake – God still loves you and accepts you as His child. This may not change the consequences of your mistake, but God still loves you. If a person commits a crime in a moment of foolishness, he may not escape punishment for that. If in a moment of foolishness a person decides to visit prostitutes and contracts HIV – that mistake is irreversible. But God can forgive those mistakes, and love that person despite those mistakes.

2.  Our Glory in Christ

Moving on to my second point – where else does our peace come from? It comes from our glory with Christ.

Many people today are hard at work for a personal agenda. This agenda maybe something very admirable, like to provide for the family, or for a charitable that they really believe in. Or the agenda may be more self-serving : to buy a bigger car or house, or to establish a good reputation, because they want to be admired as someone very charitable, or maybe they want to run for public office.

But the agenda is, first of foremost, their own. Because of that, they assume the entire burden of success or failure, and stress themselves out over it. They stand or fall by the goals they set for themselves, and lose their peace when they fall short. But look at what Jesus told His disciples :

5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. … 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15)

Jesus said : When you bear much fruit, that should be to God’s glory. Whether this fruit is tangible success in what we do, or an intangible fruit such as being loving and gracious towards others, the glory which comes from that, is also God’s glory.  In other words, our agenda must first and foremost not be our own, but God’s.

Throughout John, Jesus repeatedly emphasised in one way or another that “I and the Father are One” (John 10 : 30). In other words, His only agenda was to do the will of God. Whatever He did or said, people could take at face value as something said or done on behalf of God. So, if people accepted Jesus that was to the glory of God. If people rejected Jesus, they were rejecting God. Never once did Jesus have to assume the burden of success or failure for Himself – that burden belonged to God. All Jesus needed to do, was His reasonable best. And that too should be our attitude towards life.

When we put God’s agenda above our own, we don’t have to worry excessively about the outcome. We just have to do our reasonable best, and leave the outcome to God. This doesn’t mean that the results of whatever we do will be perfect – it doesn’t mean that we will score 100 marks for every exam, that we will meet the sales quota every month or that we will always be the first in line for promotion, but it means that we can leave the pressure of the outcome to God.

Life is not simple, but if I may simplify things somewhat through an example – this is like constructing a building. Let’s say the goal is to build the Eiffel Tower. If it is your personal ambition to build the Tower, you will have to worry about every aspect of it, from the design to getting the raw materials to getting the contractors and workmen to build it. But if there is a Master Contractor, you don’t have to worry about those. You just take the Master Contractor’s design and plans and work according to it. If the design says that you need only 500 tonnes of steel for the base, you don’t need to question that design and repeatedly check whether it is correct; you trust that the Master Contractor got it right. If the plans say that someone else is to deliver the raw materials, you only have to trust that the Master Contractor will ensure that the raw materials appear when you need them. The burden of completing the Tower safely and on time is not yours – it is the Master Contractor’s. Your only job is to do your reasonable best in those tasks which are your responsibility.

During the time of Samuel the prophet, in 1 Samuel 8, the Israelites demanded that Samuel appoint a king to rule over them. Before this, the Israelites did not have a king; God appointed prophets to lead them whenever necessary. This signified that God, and not a monarchy in which a king and his descendants, would be their leader. But the Israelites looked at the countries around them and decided that they wanted to be like the others. When Samuel heard the Israelite’s demands, he got upset, partly because it was a rejection of his office as a prophet. It was a sign that Samuel had failed. But God told him this – “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king”. In other words, God was telling Samuel – don’t assume this failure as your own, it is mine.

The same applies to all of us today. I’m not saying that when your job application is rejected or if your boss rejects your request for a pay increment, that God is being rejected. What I’m saying is that if you put God first in what you do, then you no longer assume the entire burden of its outcome. Furthermore, when God takes on the burden of the outcome, it is God’s desire to see that in the long run, we bear much fruit. We may not always see “fruit” in the conventional sense of success, but the outcome – which may be a better character moulded through our experiences – will be one that brings glory to God and to ourselves.

3.  Our Refuge in Christ

I said just now that being at peace does not mean that our problems will go away immediately. In the same way, knowledge of our security in Christ and knowledge of our glory in Christ, does not change our immediate feelings when we are in a difficult situation. When something goes badly – when we hear bad news – it is normal to feel anxious, angry and, for some people, depressed.

Let’s take a look at how Jesus felt just before He knew He was going to be crucified.

37 … He began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to [ Peter, James and John ], “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” 39 Going a little farther, He fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” … 42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” … 43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping … 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. (Matthew 26)

He was overwhelmed with sorrow. The other gospels record that Jesus prayed till His sweat dropped like blood. Jesus pleaded with God the Father not once, but three times, for the circumstances to be changed. It didn’t; Jesus was arrested and crucified within several hours later.

Let’s take a look at some other prayers made by other people in the Bible.

“May his days be few, may another take his place of leadership.” (Psalms 109)

“O Lord you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me prevailed. … the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. … Cursed be the day I was born!” (Jeremiah 20)

The first is a prayer by a very angry David against his enemy, possibly Saul. The second is by a very depressed prophet Jeremiah because the people rejected what he said. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsamane did not help Him avoid death, but it gave Him the strength and will to move on.  Jeremiah’s prayer didn’t change the peoples’ heart. Throughout his entire life, people repeatedly rejected his message. But Jeremiah found the courage and strength to preach on.

David’s prayer I guess was the only effective one because Saul was eventually killed in war. But interestingly, despite this nasty prayer, David did not take matters into his own hands and kill Saul when he had a chance to. David did the honourable thing by refusing to “lift his hand against the Lord’s anointed”.

The point I’m trying to make is : With God there is no need to hide how we feel.  I think that sometimes Christians feel that they can only approach God in a certain way, and because of that they are never authentic with God - they put up a front which is not their true self.  However, Jesus, David and Jeremiah did not hide how they felt.  With God, there are no “right” feelings that we should only feel, or that we should only present to Him. God accepts how we feel for what they are : our anger, our disappointment, our despair, our depression, even our hate or our lust!

The Bible says that God is our hiding place, that our refuge is in Christ. “You are my hiding place; You will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.” (Psalms 32 : 7)

It also says that God cares about how we feel. “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5 : 7)

But what we do with our feelings matter, and that is why it is important to entrust our feelings to God so that we can have the peace to move on.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4 : 6 - 7)

The Bible honours David and Jeremiah because they persevered in doing the right thing, despite feeling otherwise. That is why it is important to be authentic about our feelings with God – to entrust our feelings and ourselves to God – so that we can receive His peace that transcends all understanding and which guards our hearts and minds so that we can do the right thing.

Closing

As we close let’s go back to the blessing that Jesus pronounced at the last supper.

“Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”. (John 13 : 14)

What is the secret to peace in troubled times? The answer is not found in how the world traditionally views peace : trying harder to achieve success, finding assurance in our past or in our savings or talent, or planning intensely in the future. It is found in Jesus Christ, who is our security, our glory, and our refuge.

One final thought. A friend recently put up a question on Facebook, asking if it is possible to be perfect at work, in religion, health and in parenting. His question read –

“There is no way a person can hold a full-time job, be a parent, commit to exercise and religion, and still be able to produce great works. Or is there? Pray tell”.

My answer to her summarises what I have said today from my perspective – that our security isn’t to be found in doing more or trying to do better. It is found in Christ. I said –

“That’s the whole point of faith isn’t it (at least as I see it as a Christian)? It’s because we can’t do everything perfectly as humans that we have to turn to God who accepts us despite our imperfections and even failures.”

How to be Zen at Work

Bloged in Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles, Work Gripes by Mel Tuesday April 15, 2014

Good afternoon. Today, I’m supposed to share how we can be Zen in the workplace. But first, let me confess that it’s very difficult to be Zen in front of a large crowd.

Zen is not a Christian word. It has its roots in Buddhism. At work, “Zen” is a label some colleagues have given to me because I am seen as an unusually calm, regardless of the situation. So I thought, after looking through the list of possible topics that I could talk about, why not share something unconventional from personal experience?

“Zen” but has come to represent in popular culture – to quote the Urban Dictionary which is the ‘online authority’ for all such matters – “a trait where peace, calmness, and inner awesomeness are all intertwined”. What I want to share today is how we can “keep calm and carry on” despite the pressures at work.

But first a few disclaimers.

(i) I do not live the life; I (hopefully) point to the vision.

I’m not perfect. I don’t live perfectly what I’m going to say. Please don’t look at me but look always to God. Nonetheless, I hope that what we hear today will inspire us to live as better Christians.

(ii) Zen-ness is not an end in itself.

It’s probably not good to be extremely Zen all the time. Extreme Zen-ness is not the most appropriate response in every situation. Anger is an impulse that many of us have to protect ourselves and people around us. When we see something wrong or unfair, it is both natural and right to get angry and be motivated to correct the situation. A greater sense of urgency - maybe even panic - can be positive in motivating us to respond quickly to an emergency. For example when the tsunami struck Japan, the business needed to act quickly to check that it’s employees were safe and to ensure the continued flow of essential supplies such as fuel to the country. If we were all in a state of total Zen-ness, none of that would have been achieved.

(iii) Zen-ness is not an excuse for poor stewardship.

We should not be calm if we are lazy or careless and make mistakes. What I have to say today must be understood in the framework of good stewardship. God expects us to make good use of the time, resources, opportunities and talent that He has entrusted to us. The issue is how we can be calm and composed when being good stewards.

Zen : Why Bother?

So why bother about Zen? I think that could remain calm and composed in the midst of tight deadlines and difficult colleagues, that would be good for our hearts and health. It would also be good for decision making, whether at work or in our personal lives, because a clear and composed mind can think more objectively. Most importantly, we project a positive image for God when we are even tempered, and are fair and objective in what we say and in the decisions that we make.

Three Intertwining Principles

I think that one of Bible heroes who exemplified Zen quite a bit was David, and I’m going to share from his life today. We think of him as a warrior and King, but first life ambition was to tend to his sheep and do that well. He had no other aspiration to greatness in military or political office. Even when he had a chance to kill his enemy (Saul) seize the throne, he didn’t.

So, what does it take to be Zen? I would like to introduce you to three intertwining principles : (1) Security in Christ, (2) Working for Christ, and (3) Entrusting our Feelings to Christ.

1. Security in Christ

David found his security in God, and not in his achievements. He was always assured of his identity as a child of God regardless of the circumstances. In Psalms 23 he wrote –

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul. … Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for You are with me ….”

In the same way, our security is to be found in God and not our successes or setbacks. We remain loved by God whatever the outcome at work. However, if we rely on our achievements for our assurance in life, we will always be stressed over the need to perform.

2. Work for Christ

In 1 Chronicles 22, we read that David had consolidated power and had the resources to build a temple in Jerusalem. What better thing to do next then to leave a monument in his own glory, by building a temple for God? But God told David that he should not be the one to build the temple because he was a "man of blood", and David obeyed. To me this showed that when David worked, it was not for his own glory or his own personal ambition, but for God.

In the same way, Paul encouraged the Christians in 1 Corinthians 10 : 31 that "whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it for the glory of God." In other words, whether it is for work or anything else, do it for God. Work first and foremost to glorify God, not for ourselves, or for our personal objectives.

People try hard to be successful at work for many reasons. Some may be quite noble, like providing for the family, while others may be a little more self-serving. Whatever they might be, if we are working primarily to achieve a personal goal, then we assume the burden and the stress of achieving success, and the disappointment of every failure.

On the other hand, if our primary goal in working is to glorify God, we only need to do our reasonable best and leave the outcome in God’s hands.  We don’t need to worry excessively about success or failure; we just need to be responsible for the work that is entrusted to us. Success is a bonus, and we need not assume the shame of the setbacks.

During the time of Samuel the prophet, in 1 Samuel 8, the Israelites demanded that Samuel appoint a king to rule over them. Before this, the Israelites did not have a king; God appointed prophets to lead them whenever necessary. But the Israelites looked at the countries around them and decided that they wanted to be like the others, with a king to rule over them. When Samuel heard the Israelite’s demands, he got upset, partly because it was a rejection of his office as a prophet. It was a sign that Samuel had failed. But God told him this – “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king”. In other words, God was telling Samuel – don’t assume this failure as your own, it is mine.

The same applies to all of us today. I’m not saying that when your boss rejects your proposal, that he is rejecting God. What I’m saying is that if you put God first in what you do, the responsibility for the outcome is no longer solely your own – you have shifted the burden and the stress of the outcome over to God.

3. Entrust Feelings to Christ

Now despite all that I’ve just said, we’re going to have negative feelings at work. As the host of this session said, there were times when she felt like strangling others.  It’s only human to have such feelings, but what do we do about them?  I want to share with you some awkward prayers that you will probably never hear your pastor preach about in church.

“May his days be few, may another take his place of leadership.” (Psalms 109)

“O Lord you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me prevailed. … the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. … Cursed be the day I was born!” (Jeremiah 20)

It’s unimaginable that anyone should pray anything so nasty or negative in church today. But why does the Bible record them? It’s because God cares about how we feel. 1 Peter 5 : 7 says that you can - “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.”

With God there are no right or wrong feelings, He does not reject us and we can be honest about how we feel. And it is after we have poured out our feelings to God, that we can move on and do what is right and good.

Interestingly, David, who prayed Psalms 109, did not kill Saul but instead spared his life.  Jeremiah continued preaching although the Israelites continued to reject his message. In Philippians 4 : 6 – 7 Paul wrote -

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

So the third key is to entrust our feelings to God, whatever they might be, and then move on with work in faithfulness.

Closing

Before I end I want to share with you a closing thought. A friend recently put up a question on Facebook, asking if it is possible to be perfect at work, in religion, health and in parenting. His question read –

“There is no way a person can hold a full-time job, be a parent, commit to exercise and religion, and still be able to produce great works. Or is there? Pray tell”.

My answer to her summarises what I have shared today about being Zen – that our security isn’t to be found in doing more or doing better. It is found in Christ. I replied –

“That’s the whole point of faith isn’t it (at least as I see it as a Christian)? It’s because we can’t do everything perfectly as humans that we have to turn to God who accepts us despite our imperfections and even failures.”

On Faith, Faithlessness, and God’s Unwavering Faithfulness

Bloged in Church, Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Saturday February 22, 2014

I taught the kids’ Sunday School about three weeks ago.  The topic was God’s Promises - a lesson on Abraham’s faith in God, and God making good His promises to Abraham, in Genesis 12 to 22.

Central to the lesson was of course Genesis 15 : 8, a passage made famous by the Apostle Paul when he quoted in his letter to the Galatians - "Abraham believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness" - to demonstrate that it is not by human effort in doing good or compliance with religious codes that people were made righteous, but by God’s grace received in faith.

The church traditionally commends Abraham’s faith because he took God at His word when God promised that Abraham would have a son at his old age, obeyed God’s direction to leave his home (Ur) to travel and settle down in a foreign land (Canaan) and, when asked to sacrifice his only son Issac, passed this ultimate test of faith by complying with God’s directions to do so.  (Note : Human sacrifice was not unusual in those times, and the Bible records that at the time of the sacrifice God stopped Abraham and provided a ram as a substitute in place of Issac).

But as I reflected on Abraham’s life, it struck me that as much as there was something in Abraham’s faith to be commended, Genesis was ultimately more about God’s faithfulness to Abraham than the reverse.

Abraham had quite tremendous faith, but it also stumbled at times.  The man who would have sacrificed his son in faith, also lied about his marriage to his wife Sarah while in Egypt because he was afraid of being harassed by the Egyptians on account of Sarah’s beauty (Genesis 12).  Not only did Abraham lack the faith to trust that God would protect him, but he unchivalrously bartered his wife’s safety for his own.

Then in Genesis 14, we read that Abraham with Sarah’s encouragement decided to have a "surrogate" child through their maid instead of waiting and believing that God would cause Sarah to conceive as promised.  Subsequent to this Abraham laughed when God repeated his promise that Abraham (admittedly old at 99 years old) would have a son through his wife.

So I see Abraham not just a the spiritual giant of faith as he is traditionally regarded by the church, but also a flawed person whose faith wavered from time to time.  I see a man who I would say was as faithful as a human can possibly be, plus a little but perhaps not very much more.  Nonetheless, God did not ditch Abraham but kept and went beyond His word, and blessed Abraham.  In other words, even when Abraham was faithless, God remained faithful.

What does this mean for us?  I remember as a boy attending Sunday School being taught about faith, and told cautionary tales about how we should NOT be faithless like Peter who doubted Jesus after walking on water as Jesus did (and sank) (Matthew 14), or Peter who denied Jesus when questioned about their friendship in the home of the high priest after Jesus was arrested (Matthew 26) or, worst of all, like Judas who betrayed Jesus.

What no one emphasised was that Jesus reached out to grab and save Peter from drowning after Peter lost faith and started to sink, and that Jesus proceeded to die on the cross to atone for the sins (amongst others) of Peter’s and Judas’ betrayal despite knowing of their betrayal - that God was faithful to them, despite their faithlessness.

In broader terms, Jesus reaches out to us - He died on the cross - in love and in faithfulness to us, to redeem us despite our faithlessness, and from our faithlessness, because He knows that even the faith of the most faithful person would not persevere in every situation.

The above has been quite a tremendous revelation to me - to think of faith not as a cautionary tale against faithlessness, but as an assurance that God remains faithful to us when our faith falters.  To think of faith not as working with only human effort towards the ideal of an unwavering faith, but as rest in a God who is more faithful to us than we can ever be to Him.

This is not cheap grace.  2 Timothy 2 : 12 - 13 cautions that "if we disown Him" - that if there is total and absolute faithlessness - God "will remain faithful" to His own nature, which He cannot disown, and disown us.  But it is this total and unwavering faithfulness to His own nature of also perfection and love, that prompted God not to spare His own son Jesus from the cross that we might be redeemed from our faithlessness, and to spare nothing in order to seek and save the one lost sheep that had strayed from the flock.

So I concluded the lesson by telling the kids that in those times when we feel bad about mistakes that we make (as we should), we can also draw hope and strength to move on because we have a God who remains faithful to us despite our mistakes.

(Sermon) The Transformation of Zacchaeus

Bloged in Church, Culture, Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles, Society by Mel Monday January 27, 2014

Good morning. Whenever I stand here I feel compelled to start by saying that I’m not worthy to be here. I mean it. But the love and grace of God looks past our imperfections, and here we stand before each other and before God, to worship God as one.

Today I want to share with you the story of another unworthy person. That person is Zacchaeus. Those of you who attended Sunday School as kids will probably remember this as the story of a short man who climbed a tree in order to look at Jesus as he was walking past. I’ve now become quite fond of this story because it reminds me that God looks out for short people too, and I’m almost short.

Before we read the passage I want to go a bit into the background. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. Now tax collectors were despised by society at that time because they collected taxes for the Roman government, which many of the Jews hated. Furthermore, most of them were also abused their position to collect bribes for themselves. Zacchaeus was the chief, which would make him the worst of all the tax collectors. If tax collectors were sinners, Zacchaeus as chief would be the worst of time.

Luke 19 is about what happens after Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to catch a glimpse of this “Jesus” that he had heard so much about.

1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

[ Opening Prayer ]

1. I don’t remember

There are many things in Luke 19 that jump out at me, but I want to start first with verse 7. Jesus had just said that He wanted to visit Zacchaeus at home. When the people heard this, they started to criticise Him and said “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner”.

Before I explain the implications of this, let me tell you another story : Many years ago, there was an old woman and her daughter who were members of a large church in another country. They were very faithful believers, and the old woman started receiving visions in which Jesus would talk to her in her sleep. News of this got around. Eventually the senior pastor heard about it and he decided to investigate if the old woman was really receiving visions, or just senile. So he paid them the family a visit.

“The next time you see Jesus, I want you to ask Him to tell you the sins that I had just confessed”.

The old woman and her daughter were shocked. The pastor was supposed to be a good man, and now they were going to hear about his sins. “Are you sure pastor, you want me to ask Jesus to tell me about your sins?”

“Yes, I am very sure”, said the pastor. “Give me a call when you hear from Jesus”.

The pastor waited anxiously. Monday passed – nothing. Tuesday passed – nothing as well. Finally, at 4 am on Wednesday morning, the senior pastor got a call from the daughter. “Jesus just appeared to my mother, and she can’t go back to sleep”.

“Did your mother ask Jesus the question?” the senior pastor asked.

“Yes she did”, the daughter replied from the other end.

“OK. Make her a cup of coffee and make sure she doesn’t go back to sleep. I am coming over right now.”

The senior pastor immediately got into his car and drove 50 km to their home, and was there in half an hour.

Nervously, he went up to the bedside of the old woman, leaned forward, and asked, “What did Jesus say ?”

The old woman took his hands, looked into his eyes, and in a very serious tone said, “Pastor, these are His exact words : I DON’T REMEMBER”.

I DON’T REMEMBER. Jesus did not say exactly those words to the crowd that criticised Him for going to the house of a “sinner”, but that was what Jesus was effectively saying through his actions. Jesus didn’t disagree with the crowd – Zacchaeus was a sinner. The Bible doesn’t say that Jesus argued that Zacchaeus was actually not a bad person.

But the crowd was not just saying that Zacchaeus was a sinner. In their eyes, he was no ordinary sinner. By singling Zacchaeus out a “sinner”, the crowd was suggesting that Zacchaeus was such a bad person – that his past and his sins were so terrible – that he could not be forgiven. And this is perfectly human. As humans we tend to classify our wrongful acts as “major” – murder and rape – and “minor” – like cheating on parking coupons or littering. For practical reasons, we also punish the “major” offences like murder and rape very severely, while we are happy to close an eye to minor offences or to let them go with a small fine. It’s practical because society will come to a standstill if we were to jail people for every offence. The problem is that we’ve taken our practical approach to how society is organised, and applied it to how we see and treat people spiritually. So we tend to think of a major wrongdoing as unpardonable as well, and that was how the crowd viewed the Zacchaeus the chief tax collector.

But Jesus didn’t dwell on Zacchaeus’ past. Jesus didn’t put Zacchaeus down for his past. Jesus didn’t change His mind about having dinner with Zacchaeus despite pressure from the crowd. Through His actions, Jesus was in effect telling the crowd that : I can and will have dinner with the worst of “sinners”, because I can forgive all sins, and where I have forgiven, I DON’T REMEMBER.

Some of us here might be struggling with a past that you think cannot be pardoned. The good news is that when Jesus has forgiven us, He doesn’t hold the past against us anymore. He says “I DON’T REMEMBER”. We can be confident that after confessing our sins to Christ, we can put our past behind us and move on.

And what is true for us, is also true for people around us. Maybe you know of someone who has done something so wrong or so shameful, and who is struggling to get over his past despite having confessed it to God. Or maybe you know someone who has done something so wrong or shameful that you cannot imagine that God can forgive him. Luke 19 reminds us that this is not true. There is no sin so great that it cannot be forgiven. Jesus can forgive all sins, and what He has forgiven, He does not hold against us anymore. To these people who struggle with their past, we must hold out the promise that Jesus says “I DON’T REMEMBER”.

2. I don’t forget

The second encouragement I want to draw from Luke 19, is that God does not forget us.  I DON’T FORGET.

When Jesus was at the home of Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus announced that he would give half of his wealth to the poor, and compensate everyone that he had cheated four times the original amount. This showed that Zacchaeus had repented. In response to this, Jesus said in verse 9 that Zacchaeus had been saved, because he “too is a son of Abraham”.

I find what Jesus said very curious. Jesus could have simply said “today salvation has come into this house” and stopped there. Why did He go on to mention that Zacchaeus “too is a son of Abraham”?

Let me go a bit into the significance of the words, “son of Abraham”.

Firstly, Jesus was referring to the fact that Zacchaeus was a genetic descendent of Abraham. Abraham was in turn the forefather of the Israelites, and the Israelites the group of people to which God had revealed the Ten Commandments and all the blessings and promises in the Old Testament. God had also promised that Abraham’s descendants would be specially blessed because of Abraham’s faithfulness to Him.

Secondly, Jesus was referring to the fact that Zacchaeus had turned away from his past in faith, demonstrating the same faith that his forefather Abraham had in God.

This reference to Zacchaeus as a “son of Abraham” is a reminder that God never forgot His promise to Abraham – the promise to love and bless Abraham’s descendants. Zacchaeus may have led a very sinful life, but because Zacchaeus was a “son of Abraham”, God continued to look out for him. This is like how, if you are a citizen of Singapore, the Government of Singapore will try its best to assist you when you are in trouble in a foreign country, even if it is because of something that you did wrong. So suppose you are the driver involved an accident in a foreign country, and you are accused of having caused it, the Singapore embassy will step in if you have been treated unfairly in the investigation. This is because your status as a Singapore citizen does not change despite what you might do wrong. In the same way, God did not forget Zacchaeus’s status as a “son of Abraham” despite what he did.

In addition, by referring to Zacchaeus as a “son of Abraham”, Jesus was also pointing out that Zacchaeus and the other sons and daughters of Abraham in the crowd, were equally entitled to God’s love, grace and forgiveness. Jesus was not going to discriminate between sinners, between people who commit major and minor sins. The fact that Zacchaeus may have sinned more than others, did not put him beyond the reach of God’s love and promises to Abraham.

What does this mean for us? The good news is that the promises that God gave to Abraham are no longer confined to his genetic descendants.  In Galatians 3, we read that -

6 So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

7 Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

In Galatians 3 : 8 - 9, Paul wrote that everyone who comes to God in faith will be made righteous and blessed, in the same way that Abraham was blessed as a man of faith. Therefore, while none of us here are the genetic descendants of Abraham, we can become spiritual descendants through faith.

Furthermore, just as God never forgot Zacchaeus, and just as how God never forgot Abraham’s genetic descendants, God will not forget Abraham’s spiritual descendants. God will not forget us.

I DON’T FORGET my love for you. That is why Jesus said in Luke 19 : 9 that He had come to “seek and save the lost” – people who are lost because they do not have faith in God yet, but who had the potential to become spiritual descendants of Abraham after hearing the message.

2 Peter 3 : 9 says that God “is patient, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”. 

In other words, God does not forget anyone who is lost, no matter how sinful or terrible his past might be. One of the constant themes in the Bible is that God never gives up pursuing the lost in love, like the good shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep behind to look for one lost sheep. And if God has not forgotten – if God has not given up – we don’t give up either.

As between God and us as individuals, we are encouraged by the promise that God does not forget us even when we make mistakes, or when other people think that we are a lost cause.

As between us and others outside the church, we must “seek and save the lost” as Jesus did. We do not leave anyone behind and label him as a lost cause, because God has not forgotten him, and left him behind.

3. I don’t leave you unchanged

Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus turned his life around. That is the power of a genuine encounter with Jesus – no one can walk away without being moved.

God does not simply forgive sins. God does not simply not give up. God changes lives. I DON’T LEAVE YOU UNCHANGED. This is the final I DON’T that I want to draw from today’s passage. It is a personal challenge to, first of all, discover for yourself who Jesus really is so that your life will never be the same. It is, secondly, a challenge to represent Jesus as who He really is so that the lives of those around you will never be the same. In other words, I DON’T LEAVE YOU UNCHANGED.

Having said that, I’d admit that there appears to be a gulf between the promise and reality. The reality is that many people leave church every Sunday feeling uninspired, while others quickly slip back into bad habits once the work week begins. I remember when I was younger, some of my friends would “church hop” or change churches frequently because they could never find a church that was inspiring enough for them : they would complain that the message was irrelevant, or the worship was boring, or that they couldn’t connect with the people in the church.

Then, when we look outside the church, there is the reality of people who stay away from church despite their numerous interactions with Christians. If God is really that great, why aren’t these people more interested in going to church to find out more? Some people even swear to never step into a church because of bad experiences with Christians!

Uninspired Christians, and non-Christians who can’t be inspired to go to church. If God changes lives, what might be the reason for this? I think it is because we – regardless of whether we are regularly attending church – have not had a genuine encounter with Jesus.

If today someone asked you to show him who Jesus is, would you show him one these pictures? Will you, like me, Google for images of Jesus and show them to your friend?

Which is the real Jesus?

I think most of us will pull out the Bible or a Christian book and explain to that friend what it says about Jesus, and maybe share a personal story about how Jesus has touched or changed your life. So going back to the question, we are probably not going to show that friend images of Jesus. This is because we know that none of these pictures of what artists imagine Jesus looks like, will give a complete or even accurate picture of Jesus. (Though having said that, the image on the right is my favourite, because in my very disturbed mind, I imagine Jesus to be a chill dude with a quirky sense of humour telling Christians not to take themselves too seriously).

 None of us today would seriously take one of those pictures, whether for ourselves or to show to others, and say that “this is Jesus”. We don’t hang up one of these pictures on our wall, like the one on the left, look at it daily and pray “handsome Jesus with the blue eyes and rebonded hair, how you inspire me to become a better Christian”. That sounds silly, but in our daily life, some of us are satisfied with relying solely on someone else’s projection of faith to sustain our own. Instead of developing a personal relationship with God by reading the Bible regularly and listening to what God might have to say to us, we are happy to just attend Sunday service and hope that this will be enough. That’s like looking at the picture of Handsome Jesus with the blue eyes and rebounded hair and hoping for a life-changing encounter. That will not happen.

This was the point that Jesus made in Matthew 16.

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 “But what about you?” He asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus first asked His disciples what other people said about Him. The answers – Elijah, John the Baptist, a major prophet – were all wrong. Then, He made it personal and asked the disciples who they personally thought He was. That was when Peter answered correctly the “Messiah”. What Jesus was saying here is that the disciples’ faith had to be personal, based on their relationship with Him, and not a borrowed image of what other people said about Him.

What about people outside the church? Sometimes I think people outside the church have not had a genuine encounter with Jesus because Christians are satisfied with projecting a distorted image of God, instead of carefully reflecting on whether our actions match our words. I’m not saying that we can be completely perfect in word and in deed like Jesus was because that is not humanly possible, but sometimes I get the sense that Christians don’t even try.

One possible case in point : Anton Casey, the British expat who became notorious in the past week after he put up Facebook posts calling Singaporeans who take public transport “poor” and “smelly”. His comments provoked a flood of criticism on social media. Details on his family were dug up and published online. Some really nasty comments were also made against his family though they had nothing to do with his words. Cornered, he apologised, and yesterday’s papers reported that he had been fired from his job and had moved to another country. I have no doubt that Anton Casey reaped what he had sowed. If you say something to insult everyone, can’t expect everyone to simply brush that aside instead of giving to you as good as they got.

Interestingly, on Friday, the chairman of the Singapore Kindness Movement published a letter asking Singaporeans to consider whether our response showed a total lack of empathy. Singaporeans rubbished that letter and said it was nonsense, with some Christians openly declaring that they could have no empathy for someone like Anton Casey.

In contrast to the prevailing mood, a Christian friend put that letter up on Facebook and quoted Jesus’ teaching that we should “love your enemies”. An amazing reminder of what it means to love as a Christian. I expected a large number of “likes” given his extensive list of Christian friends. We’re Christians, how can we not “like” a post when someone quotes from the Bible. But he only got 28 “likes”, one of which was mine.

Anton Casey Facebook Snapshot

It would be wrong of me to use this Anton Casey incident and what I casually observe online to generalise anything about Christians. But I can say this – if we are serious about bringing people into a life-changing encounter with God, then our actions must match our words.

I think Christians are generally quite good at talking about our beliefs. For those of us who grew up in church especially, most of us have been taught various ways to tell others about our faith. In the Internet age, sharing our faith is even easier because any Christian with anything to say about God can post in on a blog, or on Facebook, or Twitter, or an online forum. Online resources are also everywhere – anyone who wants to find out about faith can just look it up using Google. But if you think about it, people outside the church don’t really need more information about God. That information is everywhere and anyone who is interested can Google for it. What people outside of church need, are Christians to go out to them to create the opportunities for them to encounter Jesus, and this can only happen if our actions in real life demonstrate the love and grace of God more effectively that the words we publish on the Internet or on social media.

Going back to Luke 19, both the religious teachers – the Pharisees – and Jesus preached about the same God which we read about in the Bible today, but only Jesus changed lives. Can you imagine where Zacchaeus would have ended up, if whatever he knew about God, was what he heard from and saw in the Pharisees? He would probably have remained where he was or even repulsed at the thought of going to church. The Pharisees couldn’t even bring themselves to talk to him, because he was a “sinner”. Jesus on the other hand, went to Zacchaeus’ home despite heavy public criticism. By this, Jesus demonstrated that God never forgot and that God never stopped loving Zacchaeus despite his sins, and that God could forget and wipe clean his shameful past. By the time Jesus stepped out of the house, Zacchaeus was a changed man.

I DON’T LEAVE YOU UNCHANGED. That’s the final encouragement we get from Luke 19 – that a genuine encounter with Jesus will not leave anyone the same. Whether you’re regularly attending church or not, the challenge is to be like Zacchaeus – to take a step towards genuine faith by looking for the real Jesus, instead of depending on just projections of faith that may be distorted or incomplete. And the challenge for us as Christians is to represent Jesus without distortion in both what we say and what we do, thereby creating the space for those outside the church to have a life-changing encounter with Jesus.

Closing

Before I close I just want to take a few minutes to walk through today’s list of I DON’Ts, each of which have an application to firstly our inward lives, and secondly to how we live outwardly towards others.

The first is I DON’T REMEMBER your sins and your past. Individually we can be encouraged by the promise that God forgives all sins and once He has forgiven us, we can move on without looking back in shame. Outwardly it means that there is no one so sinful, that God cannot forgive him – and we must hold out that hope to everyone who does not know God yet.

The second is I DON’T FORGET my love for you. We draw encouragement from the promise to God there is no lost cause – He came to seek and save the lost in love. He loves us despite our sins, and he loves others despite their sins. And just as Jesus did not forget and came to seek and save the lost, we too must follow His example to seek and save the lost.

The last is I DON’T LEAVE YOU UNCHANGED. God changes lives. We must continuously seek a life-changing personal relationship with God, instead of rely only on the faith of others. As between us and people outside the church, we must faithfully represent Jesus in word as well as in what we do, and create the space for them enter into a life-changing encounter Jesus.

Let us pray.

How Shall We Live this Year?

Bloged in Church, Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles, Society, World by Mel Sunday January 12, 2014

In Luke 5 : 1 - 11, we read an account of Peter’s first encounter with Jesus.  Jesus was at the Sea of Galilee, speaking to the crowds on shore from Peter’s fishing boat.  When Jesus was done, He turned and told Peter to move into slightly deeper water and cast out the fishing nets.

Now Peter and his crew had not caught any fish for the entire day.  With nothing more to lose, Peter complied with Jesus’ instructions, and caught so many fishes that the nets began to break and even the fishing boats nearly sank.  Peter then fell on his knees and said to Jesus : "Go away from me, Lord!  I am a sinful man!"

I find Peter’s response remarkable.  A more typical response would have been to try and exploit his new found golden goose, like what the crowd in John 6 wanted to do.  Or maybe to tell people around him that he had found a curiosity who apparently had authority over the fish.

But Peter did the unexpected.  He fell to his knees and confessed his unworthiness.

Many church leaders point to this account and say that Peter exemplifies the kind of repentant heart and faith that God desires in all of us.  I don’t disagree.

But I question why I don’t hear of such dramatic proclamations of faith more often.  Rather what I hear, anecdotally, is institutional religion saying -

"Go away from me - for you are a sinful man!"

What a contrast!  Jesus in Luke 5 on the one hand, neither preached directly to Peter nor demanded his repentance with the threat of fire and brimstone, had tamed the calloused heart of Peter the fisherman and transformed him into a fisher of men.  Institutional religion on the other, proclaims "you shall not pass" as did Gandalf to the Balrog, abandons rejects outside the temple gate and fails to turn them into Pharisees (perhaps happily for these rejects, because Jesus said that those that the Pharisees converted became "twice a son of hell") .

As we as Christians reflect on Luke 5, we should pray not only for a heart like Peter’s, but also ask how we might reflect the love and grace and truth of Christ that disarms even the most calloused heart.  Because at the end of the day, people are not going to come to church when we tell them "you shall not pass" but when, overwhelmed by the love of God that we project, they on their own volition concede that "I am not worthy to pass".

What’s great about this story for all of us is that it does not end with a hopeless feeling of unworthiness.  Rather, Jesus turns and says to us as He did to Peter : "do not be afraid; follow me - from now on you will catch men".

And in this may we find hope for ourselves and for others, and inspiration to live the year differently for Christ and for the people around us.

Reflections on the Year Past and the New Year

Bloged in Church, Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Wednesday January 1, 2014

So I end the year I think considerably more imperfect and flawed than when I began it.  Which is statistically accurate in the least because I can only accrue more, not less, sins and mistakes as time passes.

In all this I am reminded of the Old Testament books of Judges through 2 Chronicles in the Bible.  I had always struggled to understand why the leaders and heroes in those books were so imperfect and flawed.  A non-exhaustive list -

Some were Godly but had severe deficiencies : Samuel was a bad parent who raised lousy kids, David was an adulterer and a murderer, Jehoshaphat consorted with wicked rulers, and Hezekiah was proud.

Some started off well but screwed up later : Gideon, Soloman, Asa, Joash, Amaziah and Uzziah.

Some were impulsive or self-indulgent : Samson.

Some were stupid : Rehoboam.

Some were plain evil : Jeroboam, Ahab and Manasseh.

And some promising ones made bad decisions and died prematurely : Josiah.

I used to ask myself : Surely the Israelites were not so short of good people that they couldn’t even churn out one decent leader who could make all the right decisions (on critical matters) from beginning to end, without screwing up somewhere?

But they didn’t.  Judges through 2 Chronicles tells us that there wasn’t a single perfect leader; all were flawed.

It also tells us that in all this seeming randomness, in all these deficiencies, in all the triumphs of the Israelites and the depths to which they fell, God was there.  The writers of these books consistently added a spiritual perspective to the historical narrative : God was watching.  He was concerned.  He loved and continued to love, even when He disapproved of certain decisions and actions.  Sometimes He sent prophets to guide and to warn, other times He intervened supernaturally to rescue the Israelites from self-destruction.

And when Israel could no longer be spared the consequences of their sins, when it was in the depths of its misery, overrun by another empire and deported to foreign lands, God gave them a promise and hope through the prophet Jeremiah :

"I will come to give rest … I have loved you with an everlasting love, I love drawn you with loving-kindness" (Jeremiah 31 : 2, 3).

And as it was for the Israelites, so it is and will be for me, and for us.

I’m humbled to realise that the story of my life like that of the Israelites is that it will be flawed.  But as I lived out my imperfections, flaws, bad decisions and mistakes in 2013, God was there.  And as I live out my imperfections, flaws, bad decisions and mistakes in 2014, God will be there.  Not approving of what I’ve done badly or am going to do wrong, but watching over me with concern and in love.

This is not an excuse for behaving badly last year or an excuse to behave badly in the year ahead, but a reminder the God loves us despite who we are or what we’ve done or will do, that He pursues us, and that He longs to give us rest if we will let Him.  So this is the promise, I hope, that will carry me through the new year -

"I will come to give rest … I have loved you with an everlasting love, I love drawn you with loving-kindness" (Jeremiah 31 : 2, 3).

Sunday School Pre-Christmas Lesson

Bloged in Church, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Sunday November 24, 2013

Joyce said that the message below sounded like something I would put into a sermon. Well, the message of the love and grace of and of our hope in Christ is universal isn’t it, regardless of age?

“Immanuel means “God with us”. In Jesus we have God who is close to us, who grew up as a human like us and experienced the same feelings. The Bible tell us that Jesus played with children that everyone else ignored, comforted people who felt sad when a loved one died, provided food for the poor, and spent time with sick people that everyone else avoided.

We have hope because we know that God will not leave us alone even when other people don’t understand what we are going through or how we feel. We have hope because we know God will love us even if others don’t.

Because everyone goes through the same experience of being lonely or sad or misunderstood at some time in life, we want to tell our friends about hope in Jesus. We can do this by acts of love and kindness, and by telling them the Christmas story.”

The Victorious Limp in a Victorious Life

Bloged in Church, Devotional Thoughts, Faith, Musings, Sermons / Christian Articles by Mel Sunday November 17, 2013

Extract from Brennan Manning’s the chapter on "The Victorious Limp", in The Ragamuffin Gospel. Wittier, and more authentic and meaningful than some of the messages I’ve heard preached in churches in the past 20 years :

Most of the descriptions of the victorious life do not match the reality of my own.  Hyperbole, bloated rhetoric, and grandiose testimonies create the impression that once Jesus is acknowledged as Lord, the Christian life becomes a picnic on a green lawn - marriage blossoms into connubial bliss, physical health flourishes, acne disappears, and sinking careers suddenly soar.  The victorious life is proclaimed to mean that everybody is a winner.  An attractive 20 year old accepts Jesus and becomes Miss America; a floundering lawyer conquers alcoholism and whips F Lee Bailey in court; a tenth-round draft choice for the Green Bay Packers goes to the Pro Bowl.  Miracles occur, conversions abound, church attendance skyrockets, ruptured relationships get healed, shy people become gregarious, and the Atlanta Braves win the World Series.  Idyllic descriptions of victory in Jesus are more often coloured by cultural and personal expectations than by Christ and the ragamuffin gospel.

The New Testament depicts another picture of the victorious life : Jesus on Calvary.  The Biblical image of the victorious life reads more like the victorious limp.  Jesus was victorious not because He never flinched, talked back, or questioned; but having flinched, talked back, and questioned, He remained faithful.

What makes authentic disciples is not visions, ecstasies, Biblical mastery of chapter and verse, or spectacular success in the ministry, but a capacity for faithfulness.  Buffeted by the fickle winds of failure, battered by their own unruly emotions, and bruised by rejection and ridicule, authentic disciples may have stumbled and frequently fallen, endured lapses and relapses, gotten handcuffed to the fleshpots, and wandered into a far country.  Yet they keep coming back to Jesus.

After life has lined their faces a little, many followers of Jesus come into a coherent sense of themselves for the first time.  When they modestly claim, ‘I am still a ragamuffin, but I’m different,’ they are right.  Where sin abounded, grace has more abounded.

The portrait of Peter, the rock who proved to be a sandpile, speaks to every ragamuffin across the generations.  Lloyd Ogilvie notes :

‘Peter had built his whole relationship with Jesus Christ on his assumed capacity to be adequate.  That’s why he took his denial of the Lord so hard.  His strength, loyalty, and faithfulness were his self-generated assets of discipleship.  The fallacy in Peter’s mind was this : He believed his relationship was dependant on his consistency in producing the qualities he thought had earned him the Lord’s approval.

Many of us face the same problem.  We project into the Lord our own measured standard of acceptance.  Our whole understanding of Him is based in a quid pro quo of bartered love.  He will love us if we are good, moral and diligent.  But we have turned the tables; we try to live so that He will love us, rather than living because He has already loved us.’

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