Remembering

Note: This was a short message I shared during my grandfather’s memorial service. He passed away yesterday morning.

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:20-26 NIV)

It gives me great honour to be speaking during this time for my grandfather’s memorial service. And it’s kind of an emotional thing to do as well to see Tepu’ being the person that he was and seeing him now.

I have my share of funny stories about tepu’, like the one where the sales person convinced him that the swimming trunk was some sort of superior underwear. Or like how he liked to merge modern clothe wear in his trademark kelabit look.

I can’t say that I know tepu very well but like all grand children we have our memories of how he was when he was with us. For me what tepu was famous for was his story telling, especially his rendition of the palug rayeh and palug eit story of which the one on them looking for wives (sekunuh nekap awan). I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it but somehow the one telling the story always made it enjoyable to hear.

One of my aunties recounted the time when tepu was in hospital a few months back and tepu was very weak. He could not sit up and he was heavy for my auntie to carry up and sit. Tepu was insisting that he wanted to pray and that he had to do it sitting. For tepu, he just had to do it sitting down, because i think he had always done it that way before as a posture he did when it comes to prayer.

And during this time of tepu’s passing, he will always come alive when we remind ourselves back to old stories of our encounters, conversations, friendships with him. Memories invite us to the realm of space where the past comes alive to us in the present.

This thing about memory is also something important to us who hold dearly to the faith in which we profess in Jesus. And like this present circumstance where we are all looking at death in the face, we are reminded about our mortality, the weakness that our bodies are aging day by day, and that at some point of time we too will face this experience.

And as we are presented with this unpleasant future, that we all would face death, we remind ourselves of the memories of the believers of old (1 John 1:1-4 esp v.3 “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard.”) who experienced the one who overcame death.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. (1 John 1:1-4 NIV)

We hinge/anchor our hope and faith on the promise of Jesus’ resurrection for it is in this that death, the last enemy to be defeated. 1 Cor 15: 24-28

Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:24-28 NIV)

Although presently death may seem the victor, in the lifeless body of tepu’ today, we should remind ourselves of our own faith in which we profess; on the truth that Jesus has indeed overcome death by him rising up again after dying because when we are in Christ, we partake in his life, where we die to the present way of life by following the ways of the world, and are made alive when we initiate to live according to his ways.

We arm ourselves by reminding ourselves of the faith in which we profess and live so we can echo what Paul said in Romans 15:54-55 “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Where, O death is your victory? Where, o death is your sting?” Because victory has been given to us who profess and live in Christ (Rom 15:56-57 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.)

Prayer;

Dear Lord, in light of how we remind ourselves of tepu and how alive he is in our memories as though he is still here with us, teach us to remind ourselves of our own lives in the light of the living message of the gospel of your son coming into the world to give us eternal life. “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12), Keep us always rooted in the faith we profess and desire to live. In Jesus name Amen.

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“Come and Die”

It’s been a while since I wrote on reflective stuff since starting this job as a youth and young adult pastor. So, since sleep seems to elude me at this ungodly hour (it’s 2:40am as I’m writing these few lines at the moment), it’s probably fitting to jot something down I guess.

I have to be honest that the two and a half years in completing my theological degree had been my desert moments. Dealing with depression and being delusional because of personal goals that seem to constantly slip beyond my grasp has been a constant struggle to deal with. It’s somewhat a miracle that I still have my faith in tact.

I got myself mentally prepared for the worst in welcoming 2012 to be frank. But the new year has been something different. And I have to mention this up front that, it was not all the theology that defused passion, but it was mostly being disolutioned by structures of church and a lot of it had to do with financial struggles that seem to follow year in and year out (still to this very day) and failed relationships; these were probably the instigators of the wilderness experiences that buffeted on my passion. As far as I knew it, I loved all things academic and theological in nature.

Looking back, the start of my conversion which was in the year 2000, on this very date, marks 12 years of following Jesus. The start of my personal faith crisis started to mount up in the beginning of 2006. I eventually picked myself up again reading books and asking questions. I saw Jesus in a different light reading stuff by N. T. Wright, Scot McKnight and anything to do with the emergent and emerging church conversation. As things were picking up, stuff turned grim welcoming 2009. I was out of ministry and a few months after my 6 year relationship went awry just a few days before I boarded the plane to Kuala Lumpur to continue my theological education. I left Miri, my home town, the place I deeply loved thinking of never returning back again for any job offers. As far as I planned it, work or anything to do with vocation was to be outside of Miri.

Things started to pick up again in 2010, slowly. I was happy with seminary and met this girl who would later become a special someone. But things didn’t work out well after a year and when that happened I stooped into an all time low. Nothing mattered from then on. I was angry! At points I blamed God. At points I was sick of God. But the funny thing was I was still reading books pertaining to God and Jesus. I wanted to hate but somehow I couldn’t put up good reason for my situation and how God was involved in it. I still believed regardless. It got to a point where I contemplated the notion of having enough faith to still believe even if all goals and dreams failed to materialized. I came to the conclusion that, whatever happens, i’d still hold onto this belief in Jesus. And eventually, the church I grew up in called and asked whether I would be interested in being their youth and young adult pastor. I wasn’t all exited but, the old hatred of coming back to Miri eased. That was probably God easing me slowly to accept the possibility that coming back would be ok.

There is more to the story but, after another spell of depression close to deterring me completing my degree, I eventually finished it and flew back. I got aquatinted with the young adult group in the church I am now at and it’s been a roller coaster ride, from being disengaged to getting engaged in hearing God, from a passionless demeanor to being inflamed by the Spirit. I have to say that it’s good be BACK. I’m beginning to dream again, breathe again, live again. It’s a good feeling really. I’ve been through a lot of shit (although I’m not saying my shit is the worst there is. I know that there are other people who have gone through a lot of more trying situations than mine), but it’s good to have perspective again.

I’m learning that the most formative years in my journey has to be the two and a half years of being aimlessly lost. I spent a lot of time alone, writing, reading, reflecting. And as I read back some of the stuff I wrote back then, they make more sense now than when I wrote them. I’m also learning that the journey in faith is something like a marathon. We run but not sprinting to the finish line but having a steady mental focus towards the finishing line. It’s so easy to burn out, so easy to lose passion. Life has a way of ebbing it away. That’s why I think it’s essential that we run this faith race with wisdom. And I’m also learning to learn from those who are younger than me. I may be older but the task of learning is a neverending thing. I’m learning to add compassion in my passion. You can’t move forward and push forward if you can’t love people. I’m learning to trust God more with the future. I’m learning also the way of humility. Even with whatever known experiences that I have, I’m still pretty much a fool when it comes to living life. I find myself giving advise and thinking later that, at times, I’m not even sure if my advises were good or beneficial. I’m certainly no pro when it comes to all things spiritual. But whatever I know that has kept me believing till this point of time, I’ll just share what I’ve learned along the way.

And most importantly, I’m learning to dream God’s dreams more than my own dreams. Jesus came to start a kingdom revolution. And so I must keep that at the very core of the things I want to envision. Self abandonment is no joke. But it’s the only way to go at it.

This love affair with Jesus had its ups and downs. This journey in believing has been both good and bad. I’m thankful for whatever the past had taught me, and what this life of being a disciple will continue to teach me. Each day, is the realization that self abandonment is not an option but that it is the only way when one makes the choice to follow Jesus. Bonheoffer said that when Jesus calls people, it’s a call that reads, “come and die.”

The Gospel in the Key of Minor: Contextualizing the Gospel to a Cynical Generation

Note: This was the last paper I wrote upon completing my bachelors degree in Theology. This one, although being the standard boring papers that probably no one would read, is one that has some sort of emotional attachment when I wrote it. Probably one of the favorite paper I wrote. This post of course is not poetry but theology. I’ve tweaked some parts here and there so this is a modified version of what I handed in to be graded.

Jesus is So Cool
Image via Wikipedia

Introduction

            Contextualization is not a new concept. It is an idea developed out of certain probing by people who saw that there were problems when relating the Christian message in different cultural settings. Because of the heightened issues that have been gleaned from countless experiences in conveying the Christian message to these cultures, it seems that there should be a guiding principle that should direct how Christians approach how they are to convey the Christian message of Jesus in an understandable way to different people living with different cultural settings. This is where contextualization comes in. This essay will first work through understanding the principles of contextualization. The second part of the essay will then seek to apply some of the principles in an attempt to convey the message to a particular culture or sub-culture, as I have tried to do so to what I ascribed later as a “cynical generation.” The last half of the essay is to seek how contextualization is realized when applied to the setting of discipleship.  

1.      Principles of Contextualization

One of the defining reasons why Christianity has spread so widely over different cultures and regions is underlined by the fact of its adaptability to intersect its message to different cultures and settings.[1] Part of the reason of its adaptability is how the message of Christianity has been shared across cultural and ethnic barriers. Understood simply, the task of contextualization is explaining the gospel in the context of a people that will make sense to them in a way that is relevant pertaining to the way of their context, people groups, cultures and religious groups. Flemming notes that the term contextualization is relatively a new concept[2] which has been largely connected to the scope of missionary fields.[3] Embedded in the construction of the new term, Christians throughout the centuries have tried in their way to communicate the Christian message through creeds or by basing it on their historical context, but there have been dissatisfaction following this in the turn of globalization as most of the ways of expressing the Christian message were mostly Western ways.

            What is culture and the implication of culture?

Culture is something that is pervasive and massive if one is to seek a definite understanding concerning it. According to Kevin Vanhoozer, he tries to give an understanding as to what it means which is “the meaning dimension of social life.”[4] In this manner what Vanhoozer is trying to convey is that the landscape of where people live in stating the social life, is given color by the culture that directs and gives meaning to it. The color that shape cultures are the values and beliefs that inhibit it and that is why “every part of culture communicates something about meaning of the whole,”[5] in this case the social life.

Given the fact that culture is what defines the social life in the way that it gives meaning to it, if it is put then to a grander perspective of globalization, what we have is a plurality of cultural expressions. This is given to the fact that each nation or ethnic race of people has their own definitive cultures embedded in their social life.

Just looking at the landscape of possible definitions of culture as viewed above would see the massive task that is given for those who seek to convey the gospel of Jesus, faithfully and exhaustively in its full meaning and in the case of communicating it for life transformation. This is where contextualization comes in and tries to modulate the radical task of offering dialogue between the Christian message defined by how one explains the scripture with the perspective of life transformation and doing so in a way that would be conveyed meaningfully, taking into consideration the social context of each culture.

 

            Contextual Theology

Contextualization, the task that it is to undertake has the understanding of communicating a defining narrative controlled by a figure of importance in a way that takes into consideration cultures. What is meant by this is that the gospel message is hinged on the narrative or story of Jesus who is the focus of the scriptures. All tasks of contextualizing the message of the gospel stands or falls under this narrative; the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in an encapsulated way, that Jesus is the pinnacle of God’s encompassing story in his dealings with Israel and mankind as a whole. This is the centre of contextualizing the message as it seeks to dialogue within an existing culture. This infusion is seen as a dialogue between the defining narrative (Jesus’ story) and culture that it engages in. This dialogue is moderated by the non-negotiable centre, the figure (Jesus) that defines the message. The ultimate purpose in this contextual dialogue is not just to open understanding but for life transformation, where the defining narrative takes precedence in proposing a third way to live.

 2.      Communicating the Gospel to a Cynical Generation

Much of the messages that are generally played out by the modern church largely display a black and white reality. That life without Jesus is empty and one that is driven by Jesus is meaningful. I do believe that this is real and true, but to a cynical generation, statements or messages that allude to that form of communication rarely gets heard, or if it does seep into the hearts of hearers, the excitement does not last.

Part of the reason for this is that in more ways than none, it is a disconnected message that entails little or no identification with the struggles people go through in life. In the demographic of living life in the world or what we would call reality, such black and white distinctions very rarely project much truth in them. Take for example the principle of retribution or what is popularly known as karma. This principle that it so plays out in life is that, if one does good things, good things will go their way but if one does bad things, he or she will reap the benefits of the bad thing that he or she had done. The problem with this view is that the dimension of probability in the realms of reality is spaced out. Things in reality do not always work in such black and white terms. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.

The problem that I see is that the bulk of messages coming from churches now follow in some ways a-karma-like-infused principle to spirituality. That if one is in God one will receive blessing and protection and if one is not he or she shall suffer. These for me are seeds that would easily open doors to cynicalism.

Often, cynicalism is a reaction to spirituality that avoids grappling with reality, suffering, meaninglessness, injustice or weakness. The overly infused message of what is projected as the gospel sounds more like positivism that leans towards what I had earlier mentioned as karma infused Christianity. Andrew Byres gives some potent understanding concerning cynicism. He defines it as “an embittered disposition of distrust born out of painful disillusionment.”[6] The cynical disposition according to Byers is a reaction to what he calls “pop Christianity” which refers to,

“the over simplified theology and the trite sentimentality that is so rife throughout the Western church. This is a populist version of Christianity that is “purged of complexities, nuance, and darkness” and lacking “poetry and emotional breadth.” Many illnesses can be identified under the rubric of pop Christianity, to which cynicism has become a common response.”[7]

Although as Byers mentions as sickness in a Western context, much of what is seen in urban churches in Malaysia are similar in nature as well, with what is mentioned as cynicism being a negative response to Christianity, and this, more so with the demography of younger adults.

In contextualizing the message of the gospel to a cynical generation, one presumably needs to consider a modified way of presenting the gospel. Modified as in having wisdom, in not overplaying an overtly hopeful and positive message (although the Christian message is in fact a message filled with hope), but rather detour in a different route. Since what I mentioned earlier concerning much of the message of the church seems to devoid complexities in life, where reality does not go smoothly with one following Christ or not, a good point of consideration is to point listeners or those we are conversing with to the narrative of Jesus’ life, death and crucifixion as a starting point.

 

            The gospel in the key of minor

The analogy that I use comes from a musical key that in most cases exemplify sounds that would churn mellow moods or for that matter dark moments. Most songs in contemporary culture follow this general principle and this would be a good analogy to use in portraying the gospel to a cynical generation. The analogy assumes an atmosphere of darkness and in some ways Jesus’ death and crucifixion portray this. A good example of how cynics view the complexities of life can be exemplified in the lyrics of this song,

“[chorus:] cause the sun always sets, the moon always falls, it feels like the end just pay no mind at all, keep rolling, rolling, life must go on…[bridge:] we have our misfortunes the darkest of days, we must endure and keep strong, just look to the morning the promise awaits, and know that this life must go on.”[8]

 

The song above portrays a reality that speaks both about the realistic conditions of life which entails hard times and suffering but in some ways speaks a message of hope and survival. This is typical of most songs which resonate with a cynical generation who holds both the tensions of sufferings and hardships and the necessary mode of surviving through. But missing element to moving on is to the question, “On what basis is one supposed to move on?”

Jesus’ life portrayed one that most would adhere to as exemplary in terms of ethical and moral standards. Ghandi himself was one who was attracted to Jesus’ ethical and moral standards. Jesus could be presented as a man who was highly spiritual and morally robust in how he lived his life. This would be a good model for us to highlight in telling a cynical generation concerning Jesus. Scripture adhered to this as we can find in Luke where on the mouths of those ascribed to as rebels being crucified alongside Jesus spoke and said “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:41).

But taking a radical overture, although being someone who did nothing wrong to deserve death at the arms of authorities, Jesus who was a model of spiritual and ethical virtue in following God and his commands met with a fate that spoke of injustice and meaninglessness. Here we have a narrative of someone who was very much close with God but suffered regardless of how he lived in following God’s command.

This narrative as opposed to one that defies any form of contradicting force in living in the realms of reality bridges the gap for those who are cynical of an overtly positive message of hope, that sometimes exhibits the constrains of protection from God who is largely portrayed by a reductionist form of Christianity that avoids talking about contradictory stances in life. A message portrayed in this direction would, I presume open interest to those opposed to a largely positive message to resonate on that part where life is unfair and even one who followed God closely encountered as well. Jesus is also seen as one who cried out in pain at his abandonment when he wailed “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Matthew 27:46) This particular scene in the narrative speaks in terms of identification. Jesus, although being someone spiritual and who modelled a life following the moral and ethical demands to God’s command, himself went through a period of abandonment.

But the story of Jesus does not end there. Although it explicitly shows that a life of faith is not a life devoid of suffering and at points the emotional feeling of abandonment of God, it ends on a resonating major note which rings hope. Jesus, after being crucified, dead and buried, rose up from the dead. It is at this point the narrative of Jesus’ life portrayed in all his following of God, through suffering, death and resurrection speak more about how life on earth is. The defining key note here is, hope entails, not a life that is devoid of suffering and meaninglessness but the promise is that in the end God will come through as he has in the details of Jesus’ life.

A cynical generation wants and longs to hear a story not in terms of victory but a connection point that speaks in line with the hurts and longing that they are going through. Jesus’ life is portrayed in such a way that it speaks about that life, one that is steeped in the soils of reality but also one that directs to a better hope than just a strong will to move on.

3.      The Task of Discipling a Generation of Cynics

The task of finding a contextual ground for discipleship to a cynical generation is somewhat hard to construct. There are many things to be addressed and worked out. Because of the brevity of this essay, it can only do so much as to offer some gleanings in the hope of how this can be done. I have to confess that there are no hard and fast rules to what should be considered but this would need further exploration by way of reflection and experimentation.

One of the things that is vitally important for one engaging this generation of cynics is on the model of openness and receptivity of questions pertaining to faith. This mark of engagement that is fuelled with a disposition of not being shaken by questions is the few traits of dealing meaningfully with this generation of people. Rather than refuting questions because they seem off key or in some ways opposed to the gospel or the message of Jesus, one needs rather to respond by affirming the validity of their questions and asking those who have asked them to explain as to why they ask these questions. A good portrayal of this would be in terms of how Paul engaged with the Athenians. Although this seems more like a gospel presentation case for basing communication, I believe it should also be modelled in a discipleship context because many of those who are in the generation that I presumably mention are bible illiterate or have their own pretensions to what they understand as the Christian message. Therefore this needs to be subtly deconstructed to the Jesus message.

The principles introduced by Flemming in his book are those that can be followed in doing so. Flemming observes that Paul addressed Athenians with respect by calling them “very religious” which Flemming says in a term that is “neutral and nonjudgmental sense.”[9] But the address does not end with that, as Paul continues to probe a deeper reality at hand, which ascribes to their need, in the Athenians statue to an unnamed God. This unknowing becomes the platform in which Paul used to address his presentation of this unnamed God as a means of bridging the gap in unravelling a mystery to them.[10]

The principle underlined here works with what I have mentioned earlier. Now to put it more clearly, an example needs to be presented in how this will work in terms of discipleship. Flemming, in the last chapter of his book, briefly addressed some important themes that a postmodern generation longs and in some ways need to understand. The first on the list was on the importance of community. Community is something that the church is missing at the moment in terms of understanding. Part of the reason is due to translating the word church to a place or building when it should be something in connection with community.

Say for example, someone one was discipling asked a question concerning his or her disillusionment about church. And in following Paul’s principle one affirms the questioner’s disillusionment and addressing in a way that this questioner is in some ways right to convey this question and frustration about what she sees as church. Let me assume that this person, is steeped in culture and knows a thing or two concerning heavy metal music and propose to explain church in the context of a community ascribed as metal heads, which are those who are ardent or hardcore followers of a particular subculture which reveres metal music.

I have written a blog post ascribing to what the church can learn from heavy metal communities which details the journey of Sam Dunn[11], who while writing his dissertation paper based on anthropology which focuses on metal heads, in understanding sociological and anthropological insights concerning this group of people. There are three things that I found fascinating in Dunn’s documentary; (1) metal heads were considered outcasts because of the nature of their musical tastes being underground or countering pop-culture (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11; 4:1-5); (2) there was a keen sense of belonging forged from because of the music that connects them; and (3) they were ardent devotees to the group they belonged to as if to say, “Once a metal head always a metal head.”[12] These three points translate well into forming a bridge in terms of modulating cultural trends in a way that it deconstructs a dented view of church and in that way offers a reconstructive passageway in proposing a more biblical model of what church is supposed to mean.

In short what I have proposed above is a conversational way in which those discipling this generation that I have termed cynical. It has more to do with acceptance and openness in conveying biblical truths by way of conversing a cultural trend, deconstructing an old model of thinking and proposing a more biblical view concerning a certain subject.

 

Conclusion

 

            The task of contextualization is something that the church should and must consider in the reality that each culture has embedded in it differing beliefs and values. Christians need to understand this at heart in order to be able and clear communicators to those they seek to evangelize and disciple. But it must remember that relevance in terms of communicating the gospel in a given context clearly has to be controlled by what I have mentioned earlier as the defining narrative, and this point to Jesus and Scripture. But the overall purpose of communicating the gospel is not for the purpose of just giving understanding. The ultimate purpose of communicating the gospel is for life change and transformation in following Jesus.

 

 


[1] Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Method for Theology.(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2003). p.99

[2] Flemming, Dean. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. (Apollos: Leicester: 2005) p. 15

[3] According to David Clark the term arose due to a response of how “theology and missions were done in the light of globalization” in 1972, being a term that replaced indigenization “in a report of the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches (WCC).” Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Methods for Theology. Pg 102

[4] Vanhoozer; Kevin J; Charles A. Anderson; Michael J. Sleasman. Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) Pg.24

[5] Vanhoozer; Kevin J; Charles A. Anderson; Michael J. Sleasman. Everyday Theology. Pg.24

[6] Byres, Andrew. Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011) Pg.9

[7] Byres, Andrew. Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint. Pg. 10

[8] The song is taken from a band named “Alter Bridge” entitled “Life must go on” http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/a/alter_bridge/life_must_go_on.html (accessed October 1st 2011)

[9] Flemming, Dean. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Missions. Pg 75

[10] Flemming, Dean. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Missions.  Pg. 76

[11] A brief description about what Sam Dunn did can be read here with the link of his video documentary which I have myself watched. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metal:_A_Headbanger’s_Journey (Date accessed: October 1st 2011)

[12] The following is taken from a blog post I have written concerning this which can be accessed here: https://achorusofehoes.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/how-heavy-metal-can-teach-us-devotion/ (Date accessed: October 1st 2011)

prosperity or the cross?

we must have different ways of interpretation
or it’s just me not wearing my glasses
since i don’t have 20/20 vision…
did god promise us
prosperity?
or simply
denial or self and
cross?

Matthew 16
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

i care but i don’t care

God

“But Jobs’ discussion about God with Isaacson later in his life leaves us wondering: Did Steve Jobs accept Christ before he died?” (Read the rest of the article here.)

The article was going out well until the part I quoted above. It’s just like saying, “I care about you, really. But only until I know for sure you “accepted Christ.” I don’t think we really do care at all, and that’s how (not) to speak of God.

 

 

Confining what was meant to go Viral

The title you read above is a short article I wrote that my good friend Kurt Willems posted on his blog. Below is a little snippet of the it:

“Last month I went to the movies and watched “Contagion.” in short it was a movie depicting a wide spreading virus, which was unknown, and untreatable. Well that’s until they found a vaccine to somewhat contain the virus from spreading virally. I am not intending to give my review of the movie, on whether it was great and you should watch it, but there is something that got me thinking about the words “confinement,” “viral,” and in some sense how it relates to Christianity.” Read the rest of the article by clicking the link here

iGospel

Somewhere in the margins,
With words running plenty,
I talked about me,
When it was all about You!

You changed me with grace and it was unmistakable,
Taking on a 360 degree curve,
Yet I took the wheels
pushing you to the curb!

My name was in bold,
All capital letters,
I put you in numbers,
That marked all my footnotes!

But how can I say now,
That I share in your story,
Though I mentioned your name,
I was the gospel!

Bridging the tension of grace and working out your salvation.

Yesterday I had a good long conversation with my uncle. We talked about a lot of spiritual stuff. I guess you could say that spiritual topics are my junk. I’m always up for them. I learned a lot of stuff from my uncle.

We were on the topic of working out our salvation and the tension with grace; that God’s acceptance on us is not something we work at, not something we can attain by doing something but what we receive as a gift when we believe in Jesus. This is something I believe myself. But to only hold one side of the coin and avoid what Paul tells us about working out our salvation is what I would call a half baked belief system.

It’s true that we will never be able to attain our own righteousness. But to live a life that is less than what it means to follow Jesus is a mistaken belief system.

So let me try my best to bridge the two tensions together. I’m trying to remember how I explained it last night to my uncle. I’m not saying that I was correcting his belief system just me trying to bridge the two ideas together.

Now the story of God doing a rescue mission on the people of Israel was not in accordance to what Israel as a people had done. It was birthed upon a promise to Abraham actually. God made a covenant to Abraham that out of his defendant he would bless the world. There is no explanation given in the bible concerning why God chose Abraham in the first place but God just chose him and called him.

Now Abraham and his wife Sarah were old and they did not have any children. But God promised Abraham that he would provide for his barren and old wife that they would have a child. But all along the way Abraham made mistakes. But God made up for the mistakes he made. It was as if God was teaching Abraham to trust him and his ways. And I believe that Abraham soon grew in that direction, to be able to trust God.

In what seems to be the climactic turn of Abraham’s story, God told Abraham to sacrifice his son of promise, whom God had given to him. Abraham did not retaliate and went along. But in the end God was testing Abraham. And sat it was at that point that God sealed the covenant with Abraham.

Israel were riding on the promise given to their ancestor Abraham. It was out of him being chosen and his obedience that God rescued Israel. And in return after God had again initiated the rescue mission did he give the law in which directed specific ways in which Israel should live. Israel would be the priest of all nations to reflect their King, who was God.

Now the idea of grace is implied and deeply embedded in the Old Testament narrative. But people don’t somehow see it. So to me there is in someways a progressive form of continuity in the Old Testament as well in the New. But there is also an unmistaken form of discontinuity, and this pertains to the law.
Now in the New Testament, it is Jesus who supersedes the law. He takes the role of the law in the new era of transition. And in Jesus is a better law. A law that transforms people from the inside out and not just in their outward appearance. If anything, Jesus completes what the law could not do and that is inward transformation.

And so as the story goes in this new era, our initial call to be God’s people is structured around the old pattern of grace. God initiates and we respond. God sends to the world Jesus and we respond to this by believing in him. But belief is not something that has to do with a mental decision but a whole life transformation to conform to a pattern, and that pattern is to follow Jesus. Because Jesus is the new law. Albeit, a radical restructuring of the old law. In the old law, it was only for a specific people, of a certain nation. But in Jesus, it is open to everyone and not just a specific nation.

So, our salvation, although it depends on grace and belief in Jesus, it still follows a pattern of living, and albeit a specific type of living. We can’t ascribe to a belief unless we believe it whole heartedly and that means a whole turn around in how we live as well. Jesus is truly the one responsible for our salvation. But then again he is also our Lord. An encapsulated in that is a life conformed to his ideas and patterns for living. It’s no wonder, whenever one reads the New Testament, a lot of the things that the letters talk about are the ethical demands on how one now is to live ones life. So let’s not forget that.

It’s true that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus. But it also means that we are to conform to a pattern of living. Belief is not a mental decision but a life transformation directed by the lordship of Jesus. To ascribe to Jesus as only a belief that has no ethical appearance is a short subscription to a belief system. The very truth of believing in Jesus is to take what seems to be some sort of tension of grace and working out our salvation into a complimentary way of living in how we are to grasp a savior who is also our Lord.

Christian Discipleship: An Incarnational Model (sermon)

Note: this was the sermon that I preached last Sunday, with some notes to parts I wished I had conveyed differently. I’m still not satisfied with it. It entirely a different thing when one writes and speaks on what was written.

Story:
Once there was a farmer who just recently turned to Christ. Being new, he had a lot of questions. He was asking “how does a disciple of Christ looked like or what are the marks of a disciple of Christ?”

So one day he met one of the Christians who went to the same church that he attended. And he asked him that question.

This brother answered after taking some time to think about the question.

“Well, a disciple of Jesus is someone who doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t chase after women, doesn’t go to the pub and last but not least a disciple of Jesus is someone who attends church on a regular basis.”

The farmer, somewhat amused at the answer, replied, “well then if that’s the case then my pet goat is a Christian as well, because it doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t chase after women, doesn’t go to the pub and I take him regularly to church, well, if it’s not a problem with the ushers that is.”

End of story.

Now the irony of the story though it may be an exaggerated way of putting it is that sometimes our definition or how we understand discipleship is somewhat reductionistic or shallow.

And because of this we tend to live a life of being followers of Jesus not in the way Jesus would be pleased of. In fact this way of understanding discipleship is how the world would want us to practice our faith. The world has now taken over how we think of faith and following Jesus. And we somehow tend to subscribe to it one way or the other if we are not careful. And by way of subscribing to the world’s monopoly on our thinking we tend to be somewhat put in a box.

Now, how does this happen?

There are two running ideas that we can reflect on. The first being compartmentalizing our discipleship and the second being confining our discipleship. Let me explain.

Compartmentalization:

When I was younger, although I still consider myself still being young, my mom had this rule for me and my brother. We were given a penalty of 20 cents if we did not abide by the rules of compartmentalization. In terms of how she kept our clothes that is. So that the shirts would not mix with the pants and so on and so forth. But mom soon loosened up when my brother who always seemed to mess things up could not pay the fine. After all we were still young and we didn’t work anyway to be able to pay any amount of fine.

Compartmentalization is where we divide areas of our lives into neat categories. Religion is one of the facets of life jumbled up with the other categories we have in our life, there is personal life, family life, hobby life, work life and so on and so forth. So these spheres where we divide our lives into neat categories, we try our best not to mess them up, or mix them up. For example We hear a lot of people saying that it is absurd to mix faith with business life for example.

Now what we do here is that we leave the faith life behind and we go through the avenues or spheres of life in a different manner. We take off and put on our different hats whenever we arrive at a different category. This is what we can understand as compartmentalizing our discipleship. (maybe show an example)

B. Confinement:
The tendency of this particular stance is that we tend to sometimes be quite particular with practices that show that we are Christians.

Most of the time people say that reading the bible, praying, going to prayer meeting, attending church, attending CG, and the list could go on are what we consider as Christian. And that’s true. But to confine that it is only these things that warrant defining a life of discipleship can be shallow.

Now all these practices are important to the faith life but if we only see these as the defining criteria we are boxing up our faith and Christian discipleship as well.

Escape view mentality:
Now these two tendencies tend to spell out a Christian discipleship that has an escape view mentality which other religions have as well. For followers of Buddha, enlightenment is attained by denying desire which it thinks as the source to all problems. Like the box Christianity we escape life to be really Christian.

Another expression that can be plumbed together with all this is the tendency of being disengaged. When we escape life we tend to be disengaged with life. There is no connection of our faith with how we then live as Christians.

Now, the God of this world would be pretty happy when we subscribe to this way of doing discipleship. There would be no way for us to create an impact in the world which we live in. Now do we really want to subscribe to this?

Reflections on John 1:1-18:
This brings us now to our scripture reading which is John 1:1-18.

The Word in which we read in the passage tells us that
– he was with god in the beginning, and was God.
– the one responsible for creation and one that sustained life because he was the source of life.
– life giver
– and in that the source of light for humanity.

John gives a vivid picture for our mind and his readers minds to grasp concerning the Word.

In v6 John talks about someone who was sent from God as a witness to testify concerning this light, so that through his testimony people might come to believe. John the apostle will share why a witness is sent as we move along with his message in chapter 1 of his gospel account.

V9-13. This light is explained by John was coming into the world and was in the world but those in the world did not recognize him. As the explanation goes, those who were his own, the Jews who were the chosen tribe, the people of God, even they did not recognize this light that was now in their midst.

And John makes a startling comment in v12 and 13. By believing in this light, those who do so are given the right to be called children of God. This is something interesting as it rewrites how one understood being the people of God. It was an open invitation that placed belief in and no more something of an ethnic placement because of birth.

Now we come to the pinnacle of v1-18 which is this divine Word, who was God, the source of creation and one that sustained life because in him was life itself, came into the world and became human. If that was not enough, John explained that this divine entity made his dwelling among humans. This testimony is not something that is explained by a distant observer but by one who has walked and experienced this Jesus.

But how is one supposed to see glory if the glory is something that is concealed in human skin of flesh and bone? The glory that John is in fact talking about is the glory that radiates the expression of God’s love in the coming, living, death and resurrection of Jesus. But ultimately in this case glory is something entailed in Jesus passionate journey to the cross and dying for humanity to which John depicts as full of grace and truth.

Now moving on to v18 we find John explaining further that in the person of Jesus, God had been made known.

Now there are tons of valuable reflection upon which we can derive from these verses which we have read, but our focus of course is on discipleship.

What insight does the glory of incarnation tell us about the nature of discipleship or the Christian life? As I’ve earlier mentioned before the world would very much like for us to be somewhat boxed in how we live our Christian life. But what we do find in these passage is something different. Jesus left the abode of heaven and lived among human beings. There is a strong picture or expression of engagement with the new surrounding that he was in.

So the nature of discipleship which follows Jesus model is an Incarnational life. Sent into the world to embody God.

Accepting the implication of us being sent. (this is one of the parts of the sermon that I wasn’t satisfied about. What I initially wanted to convey here was that the implication of being sent also meant the willingness of the one being sent to accept whatever may come to where one was sent. I still can’t explain it in a shorter and more straight forward form which is frustrating!)

Now Thor who was considered as a god (small letters) was hurled to earth by his father because of his pride and disobedience. He was stripped of his powers and his weapon, something that looked like a hammer. He was not used to the life on earth as he was in the kingdom that he came from was the son of a king and was to be king. But the reality of a life of mortality soon latched onto Thor as he soon knew what it means to be weak. That sense of reality instilled humility in Thor.

Now the story above although analogous is somewhat different to how Jesus experienced his mortal form.

Jesus embraced his creation. In the incarnation humanity and divinity dwelt together. Not in a sense that Jesus was half man and half divine but fully man and fully God.

Jesus identified with others, his creation. Hebrews 2:17-18.

And Jesus accepted his newly lived condition as a human being. Even when coming to earth he was not placed in conditions fit for a king. He did not live in mansions.

So a life of discipleship is one that is not confined to certain places or activities nor is it life that is nicely fitted into neat compartments. A life of discipleship is a life that encompasses these tendencies and makes us see that everything that consists of our life is to be lived in the perspective of discipleship. For Jesus was sent not to only a religious sphere but to the world. For the salvation of the world.

I’ll leave us to consider some stories that speak of this.

Kiran Martin, who had the opportunity to pursue a comfortable career as a doctor chose instead to give her service for the poor. She started an organization of what is known as ASHA which helped the living conditions of those in the slumps in Delhi. But what’s amazing about this story is that through this a church exists in a section which is known for it’s Hindu extremism. “Church planting that had proved impossible in the past was now possible because of the trust and respect built by Kiran Martin in Christ’s name.”

Another story is about William Carey. I think most of us have heard about him and know that he was a pioneer missionary and evangelist to India. But what we don’t know is that he was more than what we do know about him.

He was
– a botanist who published the first books on the natural history of India, introduced new systems of gardening and after whom a variety of eucalyptus is named.
– introduced the steam engine to India and began the first indigenous paper and printing industries.
– a social reformer who successfully campaigned for woman’s rights. Campaigner for humane treatment of lepers.
– introduced saving banks to combat usury. And the list goes on!

Those two stories show to us how Christians are supposed to wear their faith…live a life of discipleship that encompasses all walks of life, and not just the religious sphere. (Exodus 35:30 shows there were spirit enabled people who were given skills to do normal jobs in this case as craftsmen. Note: I did not get to explain this one)

But last and not least, we must not forget, following a quote which I shall paraphrase from Eugene Peterson…where we spend most of our time is where we practice our spirituality. Your work place your home…if we cannot embody Christ in all our walks of life how then are we to be witnesses on behalf of those who do not know God?

Conclusion
As Jesus, who knows God, and was sent to be God’s representative to the world…we too have that same obligation, to incarnate the life of Christ for others in where we are placed in this world.

John 17:14-18

1 Cor 3:16 and 6:19-20: Dealing with Misconceptions

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The verses above seen from the title of this post have been in my opinion dealt beyond their proper meaning by people misquoting verses to support their pet peeves which I find rather annoying.

One of the problems with reading the bible is that people tend to be reading them in bits and pieces which the numbering of chapter and verse seem to influence. For the purpose of citation they are helpful, but for the use of reading passages as a whole they become somewhat deadly.

I study theology and one of the things that gets drummed in us is that context matters. Reading a verse without interpreting it in the confines of the context will land the interpreter in all sorts of trouble and funny ideas come into place.

Part of the reason for me to write this is to somewhat respond to those who teach that tattoos are forbidden for Christians. The two verses above are supplementary verses to make the argument against the practice substantive. Please note that I’m not advocating tattoos (although I do have tattoos on my body and I love them), but the thing I’m largely responding to is the rather lame argument that people generally make to their arguments and reasons.

 

1 Cor 3:16

The verse states that “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” Now people quote this and say, “See, it says our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit.” I would’t disagree with them. But taken in the context of where this particular verse is placed there is a misconception to their argument. Earlier on before Paul mentioned v.3:16, there was a mention on how some believers were bickering one another on who they were following. They were creating dissensions in terms of siding the best teachers as it seems to be stated (3:3-4).

So, taking that into consideration 1 Cor 3:16 gives a rather different rendering to the argument that our individual bodies are the temple of God. Paul uses this statement to tell the Corinth believers that they were as a community of believers are the temple of the Holy Spirit. As the argument goes, those who create this dissension (choosing sides) of tearing down the unity of the community of believers are actually working to tear down what God has worked for, that is to bring unity. 

So, taking this verse into this context, it’s not talking about individuals being the temple of the Holy Spirit but the community of believers in their unity as the temple that God had established.

Context matters. So my advise to those who pull this verse out as their weapon should think twice. Are they reading too much into just one verse? It seems so to me.

 

1 Cor 6:19-20

Now this particular verse does speak more inline with individuals being the temple of the Holy Spirit. The context of the use of this verse comes where Paul was making an argument with those who were practicing sexual immorality where one commits sin with a prostitute. The argument that Paul presents is that sex is not just an act one does for feeding the sexual appetite but it is something different. Sex is something sacred and when one enters into it the two persons become one flesh.

Paul was exhorting believers of the implication of their practice and used verse 19-20 as a statement to give perspective of the implication they were involving themselves in the practice.

So, taking this verse into context, it had more to do with the implication of sexual immorality. Not so much with everything else. The call to honor our bodies can be read with much greater degree of implications though. But why for goodness sake must it be tattoos? What about excessive eating which is a common practice among native people in Malaysia or Malaysians for that matter? Some studies have even showed that Malaysians are among those who have one of the most percentage of people who are obese. Why not honor God by eating moderately? Why has no preacher talked about this issue which is so prevalent that it becomes nothing of importance?

 

Conclusion

I hope some reasonable way of reading these passages would come out of this for those who took the time reading. One thing that you will notice is that context matters and it will determine how one particular verse is used. The sickness of many Christians who profess to be bible loving Christians is that no one gives a damn about reading passages as a whole. You don’t go reading a novel and read one line and that one line would be substantive to tell the whole story. So again on a final note, context demands that we read a verse not to get out of line in the way we interpret them. Context controls our interpretation of a verse. Context matters. And let me repeat again in bold letters CONTEXT MATTERS.