Sunday, 1 March 2015

Pastors of the Universe

Last year I went to catch a movie called Guardians of the Galaxy. It is about five social misfits who became heroes and saved the galaxy from an evil dark Lord. It is a Marvel Comics Universe in full cinematic splendor and effects.

Come to think of it, we do have our own Guardians closer to home too. Far from being social misfits, they are actually the cornerstone of our moral galaxy so to speak.  They are leaders in their own rights and teachers of morality. They do not roam the universe in giant spaceship, but they command authority and respect from behind the pulpit. They are ordinary people with extraordinary commitment and vision. You can catch them not on the big screen but on fine print. All twenty one of them are heroically featured in the latest book entitled What Pastors Want Christians to Understand. In short, they are Pastors of the Universe or the Guardians of our Hearts.

Unlike the Marvel’s Guardians, who hunt down make-believe evil dominions, their reality is anything but make-believe and their fight is an everyday battle in the moral and spiritual terrains of their congregants’ lives. I dare say that the issues they face are real and more urgent than those villains the comic heroes have to defeat within limited space-time. For this reason, their collective battle is truly inspiring and empowering. They are in fact the exemplars of our society notwithstanding our flawed humanity. And if asked, “How many pastors are needed to change a light bulb?” The answer in this case is “Twenty one” and the result of their corporate effort will be a City on the Hill. One pastor puts it this way, “In our liturgy, we move from “give us this day our daily bread” to “that we may bring light to others.” (Rev Canon Terry Wong)

And mind you, these pastoral guardians are not without their own weapon of mass conversion for the expressed purpose of tearing down strongholds and spiritual wickedness in high places. Each of them have contributed to one chapter in the book and the subject raised by them pierces deep into the abyss and morass of the human heart. I believe that is where all battles are truly fought and ultimately won.

To change the warring-heart, its appetites and carnal desires, is to change the person for good, for truth and for love. This squares well with the words of a Scottish theologian: “You cannot destroy love for the world merely by showing its emptiness. Even if we could do so, that would only lead to despair. The first world-centred love of our hearts can be expelled only by a new love and affection for God and from God. The love of the world and the love of the Father cannot dwell together in the same heart.” And the most powerful weapon these shepherds of God wield is the love that is poured out at Calvary. This love is the spiritual solvent that dissolves all the dross, chaff and detritus in our heart.

One of the pastors illuminated this point with this analogy: “Suppose I have a bottle filled with air. Can you help me find a way to get rid of the air? If I were to give you any device, any machine, anything at all, what’s the best way to remove this air from the bottle? Would you suck at it, or use a vacuum cleaner? The best, easiest and most sustainable way is to simply pour water into it! The water drives out the air. You see, the only power that can drive out the love of the world from your heart is the love of the Father. It is like the water that drives out the air.” (Pastor Jason Lim)

And these pastors are not without flair in their delivery. One of them, Rev Dr Gordon Wong, even expressed this point about love in many languages. In the book, he quoted the German poet Johann von Goethe, “Wir warden geformt und gestaltet durch das, was wir lieben,” which translates into, “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.” And he also took the words of the French poet Arsene Houssaye in French, “Dites-moi qui vous aimez et je vous dirai qui vous etes,” which translates into, “Tell me who you love, and I will tell you who you are.” These are gems of truth that the reader can unearth quite effortlessly in the book and they do show the emptiness of our restless hearts.

But of course, the longest journey one can take in this life is the journey from the neural-scape of our head to the inchscape of our heart and one of the contributors in the book expounded this with the parable of the good Samaritan.

This is what the Rt Rev Rennis Ponniah wrote in the book, “…look at the Samaritan’s heart. Why did the Samaritan respond when the priest and Levite did not? The difference is the heart with which we see. As William Blake said, “We do not see with the eye but through the eye.” In this profound observation, we realize that as we view the same objective landscape, what we see depends on how we are formed within – that combination of our beliefs, values and worldviews, i.e. the “inchscape of our hearts.” In other words, we gather and focus light with our eyes, though what we actually see and act on depends of the landscape and contours of our entire heart. All three men saw the victim through their physical eyes, but what accounted for the difference in their action was the state of their heart. The priest and Levite, the religious characters in the story, saw with a heart of self-love…You need a heart of compassion to see the need of others in a way that moves you to meet that need.” I only have five words for the ninth Bishop of the Diocese of Singapore, “Shout it from the Mountaintop!”

Now if Marvel’s superheroes are called upon to fight the darkness in this world, then rest assured that our parish custodians will be more than up to the task. One of them cape-crusader of the heart, Rev Dr Chua Chung Kai, has got this covered with a chapter in the book called, “A Call to Prayerful Discipleship.” This is what he wrote about his Church’s annual prayer retreat in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, in July 2014: “One of our Senior Pastors called us to his room to share a piece of sad news with us. A fellow pastor we knew had been caught in sin, and we felt very sad and heavy over the news. In particular, I got a strong impression that a “darkness” had come over our land.

He then employed “darkness” as a metaphor and identified seven scripture-defined darkness we all face in our life:

1)     Darkness as despair and discouragement – “Some sat in darkness and the deepest gloom, prisoners suffering in iron chains” (Psalms 107:10);
2)     Darkness as a place of judgment – “They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 13);
3)     Darkness as a place for the dead – “Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion” (Psalms 88:12);
4)     Darkness as a place of hidden knowledge – “He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him” (Daniel 2:22);
5)     Darkness as deception in life – “The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both” (Ecclesiastes 2:14);
6)     Darkness as the lot of the unsaved – “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves…” (Colossians 1:13); And
7)     Darkness as sin – “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth” (1 John 1:6).  

And of course, the weapon against the darkness is His Word, His Love and a heart of Intercession.

From out of the darkness, we are called to be torchbearers for Christ and this is where Rev Edwin Lam turns up the heat in the book. He shines the self-searching interrogative light on the Church itself with these un-minced words: “Today, we tend to be more concerned about ourselves than about the work and ministry of God. The church is often concerned with externals. We want speakers who can entertain us with good sermons and good jokes. But speakers are not primarily entertainers (although that doesn’t excuse their being unprepared, boring and dull). They are God’s spokespersons, who should say what God wants them to say. But we don’t rely on mere mortals to make the word of God come alive for us. It is already alive and sharper than any double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12).

As Christians, we are called to be agents of transformation. We are the salt and light of this world and not its disco-ball, party streamers and shiny condom packs. It is essentially about more of God and less of us and not more of us and less of God.

In the Book Passion for Souls, Rev Edwin Lam adopted this searing quote from Oswald Smith which states, “Work among believers of itself will not suffice. It matters not how spiritual a church may profess to be, if souls are not saved something is radically wrong, and the professed spirituality is simply a false experience, a delusion of the devil. People who are satisfied to meet together simply to have a good time among themselves are far away from God. Real spirituality always has an outcome. There will be a yearning and a love for souls. We have gone to places that have a name of being deep and spiritual, and have often found that it was all in the head. The heart was unmoved. And there was, not infrequently, unconfessed sin somewhere. “Having a form of Godliness but denying the power thereof.” Oh, the pathos of it all. Let us then challenge our spirituality and ask what it produces; for nothing less than a genuine revival Body of Christ, resulting in a true awakening among the unsaved, will ever satisfy the heart of God.

If the above quote doesn’t stir deep within your spirit, try this John Wesley’s siren blare for size: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist…But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.

And I will let Rev Christopher Chia have the last word on this heart-compelling topic about the church, which in my view, sums up everything thus far most valiantly: “We face four enemies within Christian circles: Traditionalism, emotionalism, activism and biblicism. Traditionalism reduces the Christian faith to rituals and comfort derived from practices that have stood the test of time. We are only as secure or happy as our last ritual. On the other hand, much of charismatic Christianity is also in danger of reducing the faith to a series of powerful emotional encounters. We are only as secure as our last spiritual experience. Our pursuit of experience replaces our pursuit of Christian. Christian activism, however, reduces the faith to a series of ministry activities. We are only as secure or happy as our latest one. But we have to realize that participation in church ministry is not simplistically equal to partaking in Christ. Biblicism may focus on the Bible as the true Word of God, but it also reduces our faith to a series of theologies. We are only as secure or happy as our last study. We spend a lot of time mastering the Word of God, but we do not allow the God of the Word to master us. Our pride in biblical knowledge leads us to point out the failings of others instead of pointing people to Jesus.

Without exception, superheroes are called to defend the society and the building block of society is none other than the family. This is where the pastoral dragnet of responsibility and influence is cast far and wide and even deep. In the book, Rev Tan Cheng Huat started his chapter entitled “Every Home, Every Child, Every Day” with this Chinese Proverb: “In the broken nest, there are no whole eggs.” His main theme is this: “The primary responsibility we have as parents is to teach our children to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” And his conclusion nails the issue with these series of self-reflecting questions: “How can you and I pass on our convictions to our children if we have not determined what we believe? How could a son be raised to be a man if his father and mother are not convinced of what God expects a man to be and do? Or can a daughter be raised to be a woman if her parents don’t know what the Bible teaches is the core of godly femininity? In a culture that glorifies career success and minimizes the importance of motherhood, what would give a woman (and her husband) the courage to choose children, especially during the early years of their lives, over career?

These are in fact personal questions that cuts into the heart of parenting for me and I feel intimately about them. For if our children look to us for moral guide and spiritual leadership in their growing and maturing years in particular, where do we then look to for the same guide and leadership in our own life? Where do we as parents draw our enduring hope and renew our own strength? If we ourselves are flippant about our beliefs, replacing sacrifices for conveniences because we find the cost of discipleship too daunting or the commitment of faith too interfering, do we then pass down a legacy of cavalier faith, broken promises and watered-down trust to our children?

If we ourselves live a life of misplaced priorities, and stand on compromised principles and questionable foundation, how can we then expect our children not to suffer the same fall when the ground beneath our feet shakes to test our own standing in the faith? Indeed, it is wishful thinking to expect the blind to lead the blind out of a moral bind in the same way that one can’t be considered a disciple of Christ just because he/she participates in the holy communion once every month and nothing else.

In the chapter, the good reverend then highlighted the many descendants of the 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards who saw to it that his own children served the Lord to the best of his ability. Here are the fruits of his labor for many generations after: “One study has profiled his many descendants – including 430 ministers, 314 war veterans, 75 authors, 86 college professors, 13 university presidents, seven congressmen, there governors and Aaron Burr, who became Vice-President of the United States. His family never cost the state one cent, but contributed immeasurably to the life of plenty in the United States. Now, this august genealogy of Jonathan Edwards is not so much about genes and the survival of the fittest. It is more about Jesus and the revival of the meekest (for the meek shall indeed inherit the earth).

Just when you think that these pastoral Guardians seem to exhibit scant levity in their writings, and are too serious in their tone, let me introduce the lighter side of the book. Pastors and ministers have a fun side too. There is no lack of humor in their faith and teachings.

Here is one for your digest quite literally and it is called “A Story of Choking” narrated by Pastor Jason Lim: “I once had a problem with the toilet bowl in my son’s bathroom. A horrible smell was coming out of it, and when it flushed, there was a deep gurgling sound. The water level was also lower than usual. At first, I ignored it – it was my son’s toilet, and my wife didn’t know! But the stench got worse. It became overwhelming, and at last, we decided to get the plumber in. When he arrived, he exclaimed. “Wow, what is so smelly?” He looked at the back of the toilet bowl using a mirror, and then dismantled the entire unit. After a few minutes, he said to me, “Sir, come take a look.” To my horror, a big piece of excrement was stuck at the floor trap! My helper shrieked, “Eeee!” We couldn’t believe our eyes. It was gross and really smelly; memory of the stench is coming back as I write.”

Well, the object lesson for that account is this: “Worldliness chokes and blocks us, and that’s why the Bible tells us: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15)

Here is another one about enduring love between the aging couple as told by Rev Dr Daniel Chua. “As they sat on a swing one night to look at the stars, she said to him:

“Honey, have things changed between us? You used to sit very close to me.”
“Well, I can fix that,” he said, instantly moving next to her.
“And you used to hold me tight,” she added.
In response he gave her a cuddly hug and said, “How’s that for my baby?”
Finally she asked, “Do you remember how you used to nibble on my earlobes?”
With that, he sprang to his feet and got going. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“Oh, I’ll be right back. I’ve got to find my teeth.”

The point? It is to illustrate our parallel relationship with God and how He will never forsake us as we age as echoed by a mature and aging saint in a prayer at Psalms 71:9: “Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone.

And what really impressed me most in Rev Dr Daniel Chua’s chapter entitled “The Faith of an Aging Saint” is that he opened it with an adaptation about the insights gained by the time he’s eighty.  Here is the chronology for your reading pleasure:-

“At 15, I learnt that mothers always know best, and sometimes fathers know best too.
At 20, I learnt that crime doesn’t pay, even if it is done well.
At 25, I learnt that a new baby keeps a mother from having an 8-hour day, and the father from having an 8-hour night.
At 30, I learnt that strength is the charm of a man, while charm is the strength of a woman.
At 35, I learnt that the future is not what you inherit, but what you create.
At 40, I learnt that the secret of happy living is not doing what you like, but liking what you do.
At 45, I learnt that life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you respond to it.
At 50, I learnt that a dog is a man’s best friend, but a man’s dogma can be his worst enemy.
At 55, I learnt that small decisions should be made with my head, big decisions with my heart.
At 60, I learnt that you can give without loving, but you can’t love without giving.
At 65, I learnt that to enjoy a long life, we should eat what we want after eating what we should.
At 70, I learnt that life is not a matter of holding good cards, but playing a poor hand well.
At 75, I learnt that as long as you think you’re green, you will continue to grow; but as long as you think you’re ripe, you are rotten.
At 80, I learnt that to love and be loved is the greatest joy in the world!
At 85…(you can fill in the blanks yourself).”

The above deeply resonates with me because at 45 this year, there is no greater truth than this: “That life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you respond to it.”

So I have come to the end of this review of a wonderful book written by our local pastors whom I regard as the Guardians of our moral galaxy. There are of course much more in the book than this review can contain. Rev Daniel Foo in fact reminds us to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1). He wrote that “We are not saved by good works. We are saved to do good works.

Rev Dr Wee Boon Hup recalls this event in his past which coincides with what Galatians 5:13 encourages us to do, that is, “through love serve one another,” and he puts it this way, “When I first started going to church as a teenager, the church bulletin had a very simple motto written on it: “Enter to Worship. Depart to Serve.” That is a very good motto to have in every church and in the heart of every believer in Christ. The end result of all spirituality is that we love our neighbour through our service to them.

And last but not least, Rev Dr John Yuen reminds us to be rich toward God by not heaping up treasures in this world. He wrote, “Do you want to be wise or foolish before God today? The Christian martyr, Jim Elliot, said it well: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.

Personally, I have learned much from the book and I would recommend it wholeheartedly. And what’s most inspiring for me is to know that my family and I can sleep soundly at night because we can trust that the Shepherds of God are faithfully patrolling the moral and spiritual terrains of our society and our churches, keeping the peace, mentoring the young, grooming them for leadership, and tending to the needs of the poor and the aged. And their collective light and unity will indeed keep the darkness at bay. Cheerz.

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