Sunday, 19 March 2017

James 1:2-8 - Pure Joy.


James 1:2-8

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."


One day, sorrow came to me.
She claimed to offer a gift.
But I told her to leave.
I just want no part of this.

So, I kept the door ajar.
Careful not to let sorrow in.
I thought to keep her afar.
To give me time to think.

But sorrow refused to go.
Despite my cries of unfair.
Her gift she plans to sow.
But it's more than I can bear.

Then sorrow said she's a friend.
She extended her wounded hand.
She said let her in.
And assured me it's win-win.

Guarded, I ask why.
I just needed to know.
Why good things must die.
And bad things take hold.

Sorrow smiled but answered not.
Neither did she blame nor find fault.
She just reminded me to grow.
And let not my heart wax cold.

She said, "Take the journey,"
To discover what God has in store.
She said the lessons are many.
When I answer the call. 

My heart then soften.
As I invited sorrow in.
That day she and I talked often.
About my eventual overcoming.

After a brief season,
Sorrow left with gift unveiled.
Still she gave no reason,
Yet I've grown and prevailed.

So I am recalling here.
Of the verse in James.
There's no trial I need to fear.
For my hope is in the name above all names.

Amen.

Cheerz.

Holistically self-delusional.


There is something not quite right with the Home section of the papers today. Two articles form the bookends of the section. At one end, the article reads "Kids find inner calm through mindful breathing."

Go ahead, and see the inset picture above. Can you not see the calming effect on those kids in uniform with eyes closed, deep breathing and unhurried thoughts?

At the other bookend is this article entitled "More children and teens are stressed out." (14 March) This is a serious article - that is, no more pictures of completely immersed meditative kids spending a few minutes at their tuckshop doing mass mindful breathing.

This article talks about a Primary 5 pupil who fell to his death from his bedroom window on the day he was to take his exam papers home. He was expected to score above an average of 70 marks. And for each mark he falls short, his mother would cane him once.

Sadly, on that day, he scored just averages with 50 for English, 53.8 for Chinese and 57.5 for science. Alas, he would rather face his own mortality than to face his mother. 

The article reports that "there has been an increase in the numbers of teens who present at KK Women's and Children's Hospital with stress and emotional problems...Most of them are between 13 and 16 years old." Another 16-year-old was seeing a cardiologist for "heart palpitations that surfaced whenever he had a panic attack." And another was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder."

Lesson? Just one. Between mindful breathing and mindless pressure, I think we are holistically self-delusional. If good intention is king, then the pauper here is the big picture. And if the road to hell is paved with good intention, then the road to confusion is littered with good vibration.

This is the vexing paradox I see - and it gets no better as the days go by. We treat a wife with bruises in the hospital and leave the abuser roaming free at home. We confront a child's academic failure at home and leave love, understanding and relationships out in the cold corridors. We say "I do" at the altar and say "why not?" to casual flirting and one-night stands in the office.

And we do meditative breathing in schools (to relieve stress) and then expect our kid to excel at all cost regardless of temperament, silent tears and the longing for understanding, patience and a simple word of "I am proud of you son (or daughter) for just being you."

If only we can look at ourselves in the mirror, we will realise that the image we see tells an ugly truth, an inconvenient one. We often turn expectation of our kids into uncompromising goals, compel performance out of them above unconditional love from us, and convert them into personal trophies for show to others instead of accepting them for who they are and how hard they have tried to compete for a moment of our attention.

One professor from NUH's psychological medicine department said, "As parents, we may miss opportunities to validate them and recognise their efforts." (John Wong). And these missed opportunities add up over the growing years to make them feel that parental love is more a transactional relationship than a transcendent one.

So, while I applaud the school's sincere effort to fill 5-mins of the student's recess time with mindful meditation involving sitting quietly, closing eyes and maintaining slow breathing, I hope that the ministry, the schools and the parents would be mindful at the same time (and not just for 5 minutes) to sit quietly, open their eyes and maintain eye-level vision with the mirror, and hopefully realise that the problem may just lie with them and the neurotic way in which success is defined by them - starting from the top down. Cheerz.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Jesus Freak.


How do you turn a rock musician into a Jesus Freak? Simple. You answer the call. And if you are the author of "Back to Jesus", answering the call goes beyond identifying yourself as a Christian. That may be too vague, and even counterproductive nowadays. The author goes beyond labels here and answered the call by urging us to be "a practising apprentice of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ of Nazareth who is the same yesterday, today and forever." That’s the essence of the book.

But he forewarned that while walking down the church aisle is easy, being a practising apprentice will cost us everything. And it was a price the author was prepared to pay and has been paying since conversion.

For the author, he hung up his brand new 1970 Gibson guitar, which was bought on credit, and traded in the famed disciples of rock, namely, John, Paul, George and Ringo for the disciples of the Rock of Ages, namely, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This was when he was 23 years old after a turbulent life of rock gigs, drug taking and even jail time.

So, trust me, this is no ordinary book about going back to Jesus, and the author is no ordinary convert. He practically lived through and by what he has written and meant every word of it.

But why call him Jesus Freak? Because he was christened as one when he confronted one of the greatest challenges of his new found faith, that is, to witness to his old buddies.

Imagine this, a rocker without a cause is now preaching about a savior with such conviction and passion that his rocker friends can't help but find him weird, strange and even freakish.

To them, he was almost out of this world. It was a quantum leap of perceptive reality from rebellion to repentance, drug abuse to self-denial, and love for the world to love for his Savior. It used to be that he lived everyday for self. Now, as Paul says in first Corinthians, he dies everyday for Christ.

But not being ashamed of the gospel of Christ, this Jesus Freak led a few to join him, and together they turned his friend's living room into a ministry of love, hope and fellowship.

This is how he described it: "I recall a typical scene in Joey's living room, a former venue for pot parties. A handful of Jesus Freaks sit cross-legged on the floor. There's a knock at the door. In walks Lawrence, looking for a party.

But the pills, pot and wine bottles are nowhere in sight. Instead, Lawrence sees little books in our hands - pocket New Testaments. He sits in a corner, leans on the wall and listens to us talking about Jesus in everyday language.

After midnight, Lawrence shocks us all with an announcement: "I want to be baptised!" He said this firmly and with strong convictions. We hadn't even spoken about baptism."

But truth be told, the author is now an ordained minister living here with earned masters and doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is married to his Pearl of the Orient Lai Kheng with three grown children.

Yet, notwithstanding his credentials, he wrote that the kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of equals. And if you ever chanced to meet him in public, and wonder how to address him, you can call him Jesus Freak. He admits that that's the title he answers to.

Now, what I like about the book "Back to Jesus" is that it talks about a very intimate journey of a hardscrabble life. He wrote that he began his seminary studies when his elder son was only two years old. And he was only half way through when his second son came along.

He said, "For five years our family lived below the poverty line by American standards. One of my trousers had a hole in the right pocket. The other had a hole in the left pocket. I had to remember which one I was wearing so as not to have my precious coins slipping down into my shoes, which also had holes.

I used to cringe when I heard stories about missionaries finding money on the ground. I pictured this vividly and I never wanted to experience it. I felt differently about it when it happened to me during my studies, not once, but twice. The first time it was a twenty-dollar bill, and the second time, a fifty." (Now, he must know that having holes in the jeans - the more, the merrier - is a fashion statement).

To me, the book doesn't pretend to have all the answers a Christian is looking for. Faith is a personal relationship and the author is journaling his walk - as well as stumbles - with the Lover of his Soul.

He understands that every encounter we have is different and each of us learn different lessons from it. But if Jesus' teaching can be reduced to one word for the author, it would be restoration. It is restoration of the spirit, soul and body to walk in faith, hope and love for a kingdom that is not of this world.

For this purpose, the restoration is also one of sight, that is, to cast ours beyond the horizon, to see beyond the cares and anxiety of this world for a world eternal, perfect and whole. That is, to view all things - whether success or failure in this world - as temporary inns of reflections, where we learn from and move forward as sojourners of another world.

The author bares his soul in the book. He is not afraid to tell you about the dark world of his past or the struggles of living a life of faith. The nuances of a transformed life can be gleamed in the pages.

In one encounter, he wrote that he was returning from a mission trip and he had to endure 10 to 12-hour journey in a crowded bus. He managed to find a window seat and was ready for a well-deserved snooze when a middle-aged Muslim man sat beside him. He greeted him but he was ignored.

What happened next is best described in his own words: "A generous portion of his upper body mass covered my right arm and shoulder. His having snubbed my greeting earlier didn't help.

Throughout that long ride, I had to decide whether or not I would follow Jesus' example of self-denying servanthood. I had to choose between my comfort and that of my fellow traveller. I would have only needed to squirm a little to reclaim my personal space.

But I didn't. I endured to the end. My mission for that night, it seems, was to serve as a pillow for a total stranger, and to do it gladly. With God, all things are possible. But still, not easy."

There are other encounters in the book that tried his patience, stretched his goodwill and tested his faith. And for some of them, he learned it the hard way. You will just have to buy the book and read it for yourself.

My point is that this is a man who wrote the book with little or no pretension. He makes it clear that he is a follower of Jesus - full stop - and not the institutional church. No doubt he is a disciple on the way, and has yet to arrive as he repeatedly reminded his readers that we are not asked to follow the risen Christ, but the living One - the historical Christ.

But to him, the state of modern Christianity can learn a thing or two from the admonishment of an outsider, Gandhi, who once said this:-

"But negatively I can tell you that to my mind much of that which passes for Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount."

And the book, to me, flourishes with these words by the author which matches Gandhi's in verve, wit and taut:-

"Modern Christianity has marginalised Jesus and his teaching. The stone that the builders rejected has been rejected again. I don't mean the Risen Christ. It's the historical Jesus that we have set aside for another Jesus - one who lays no claim on us and does not hold us to the conditions of discipleship.

We have traded the Sermon on the Mount for the gospel of self-esteem and self-improvement. Be happy, healthy, wealthy and wise, and go to heaven when you die. We call it Christian living.

It has more in common with New Age spirituality, where there are no moral standards and the only absolute is me. We are building our lives on top of a sinkhole. If we do not return to the rock-solid teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, we will not survive the storms of the End Time or the Final Judgment.

So then, are we saved by works? No. We are saved by grace. But in the End, we will all be judged by works."

If those words resonate with your spirit, as they do mine, then you will be in for a treat in the pages of the book. It's a clarion call, a wake-up call for all.

The metaphors and lessons in the book are rich, almost poetic, with references to pure salt with additives (that is, exposed to moisture - diluted faith), road show religion, God's looking for a seamless consistency between our thoughts, words and deeds, a quote about religiosity that says this, "Like a eunuch lusting to violate a girl is the person who does right under compulsion", and lastly, this verse from Amos 5:23-24 speaks for itself, "Take away from the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

One part of the book talks about Forrest Gump and how this fictional  character can be used as an object lesson for us believers. For those old enough to remember, there was a part in the movie which showed a disenchanted Forrest Gump with long hair and beard running seemingly without end.

He ran across remote parts of the American highways and caused a national sensation. Many ran with him, sucked into the frenzy - excited and thrilled to be part of the crowd.

But then, at one abrupt point, Forrest stopped running. Just like that, he walked off. And the joggers followed suit, looking at one another at a complete loss for words, meaning and purpose.

Here is how the author paralleled that with how some believers view the Christian faith today:-

"Sadly, many of us are like Gump's entourage. Until we find our true selves in Christ, we go on running and running after anything that attracts our  attention. Our life becomes like a fast-forwarded day in a crowded theme park."

To the author, the ultimate truth is in the person of Jesus Christ. But in the postmodern world, in the age of post-truth "where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief", what counts as ultimate is a devotion to what seems right, what feels good and what garners attention.

In such a world, virtues become secondary value in service of self. Charity is done to keep up with the image, ministry work is perpetuated as an obligated labor, and worship is about experiences, sensorial - and not relationship, sacrifices.

That is why the author's earnest call for all believers to come back to Jesus is not only timely and necessary, but urgent. Jesus is still the way, and the truth and the life, and his teachings are still as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago.

Although the book is not an exhaustive treatment on the subject of discipleship or apprenticeship, it is nevertheless a road map to guide the reader along. Personally, I benefited greatly from the book and I readily recommend it.

I appreciate the author's candidness, humility and experiences, and it is a breeze to read, just 142 pages. This is one hands-on writer who walks the talk and talks the walk. His life shows that he is a destination-focused apprentice.

I guess there’s no better way to end here than to unveil the name of this veritable Jesus Freak. I saved the best for last. Once again, the book is entitled "Back to Jesus", and the author is none other than the affable (yet socially guarded) Dr Edward Keith Pousson. Enjoy. Cheerz.