The Prayer

How does a king respond when his country is threatened by war? What does he do when the invaders seem so much stronger and more powerful? Plan war strategies with his officials? Call on more powerful allies to help? Make peace with the enemy?

How about you? What would you do when trouble comes knocking? How would you feel? Afraid? Worried? Start thinking what to do: steps 1,2,3? Call a friend?

King Hezekiah tore his clothes and put on sackcloth to mourn. Where? In the temple of the Lord. More than just crying and grieving, he prayed.

Isaiah 37
15 And Hezekiah prayed to the Lord: 16 “Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. 17 Give ear, Lord, and hear; open your eyes, Lord, and see; listen to all the words Sennacherib has sent to ridicule the living God.

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Hezekiah looked beyond the circumstances to the Lord Almighty. Who is he? He is the God of Israel. Where is he? He is sitting on his heavenly throne, flanked on both sides by angels. What is his status? He alone is God over all the nations on earth. Why so? Because he made the heaven and the earth. He is Creator of all life.

After he acknowledged God, who He is, Hezekiah asked God to listen to him. Based on his knowledge of who God is, on this basis, Hezekiah called on God to do something. What? He asked God to open his ear and listen, open his eyes and see. See how the Assyrian king has insulted the living God.

18 “It is true, Lord, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste all these peoples and their lands. 19 They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands.

Next, Hezekiah looked realistically at the circumstances around him. He knew the reality of the power of the Assyrian empire. He also knew how worthless their gods were even though Sennacherib tried to deceive and convince them that God could not deliver them from their troubles.

20 Now, Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, Lord, are the only God.”

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Finally, Hezekiah called on God to help them – to save them from the hand of the enemy. For what? SO THAT all the kingdoms of the earth may Know that you, Lord are the only God.

This is the essence of true prayer – to acknowledge who God is, that God is greater than all the circumstances of life, more powerful than all the powers on earth. To pray is to ask God to listen and to see the wrongs done to Him. To pray to God is to ask Him to do something so that people will know… that the Lord alone is God. Surely, God answers this kind of prayer.

Let us learn to be like King Hezekiah… to pray when we are afraid, to acknowledge both the reality of God and the reality of the problem at hand. Let us learn to pray like Hezekiah – a prayer that is all about God, who God is, what He does and will do for His sake alone.

Silent reply

Isaiah 36
21 But the people remained silent and said nothing in reply, because the king had commanded, “Do not answer him.”

22 Then Eliakim son of Hilkiah the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary and Joah son of Asaph the recorder went to Hezekiah, with their clothes torn, and told him what the field commander had said.

What happened here? Why were the people silenced? Why did the king command them not to answer? Answer who? Why were the palace officials in mourning?
What did the field commander say to the people?

Read Isaiah 36:4-20. King Sennacherib of Assyria attacked Judah and sent his field commander to deliver an insulting message – to demoralise and taunt the people. King Hezekiah was given a message for him to surrender and submit to Assyria. The people were being convinced not to believe Hezekiah when he said that God will deliver them from Assyrian attack.

What do u do when people insult you? What is our natural response when we are forced to listen to unpleasant words and unwelcome news? Is there not an urge to cry out? or run away if cannot take it anymore?

It is hard to be silent in the face of oppression. It is not easy when people wrongly accused us or threaten us or oppress us with words. Each time I face this kind of situations, I often think of Jesus when he was silent during his trial. In the reading today, the people were commanded to be quiet – not say a word in defense of their king and God. The officials were so grieved, they tore their clothes in mourning.

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How did King Hezekiah stay strong in the face of difficult challenges and insults? It is his knowledge and faith in his God – the God who is his first and last resort. In the next chapter, we read how Hezekiah lamented and grieved. He knew how the Assyrians insulted God and he believed God will himself avenge them. The king sent messenger to Isaiah for him to pray for the people to God.

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Today, I am still learning the virtue of silence… to keep quiet even when the urge to speak or cry out – to defend myself is great. It is hard, sometimes when I cannot utter the words, when I have to swallow the words, I let my tears flow instead. God sees. God knows. He uses such situations to transform me into the likeness of Jesus – to be meek and calm and at peace in the face of harsh and wrong accusations.

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How about you, dear friend? Take heart, God sees. God knows. God is with you all the way – he will see you through.

 

Bars & Boundaries

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These bars seem constricting. They keep people from lugging big bags onto escalators. They are wide enough for carry-ons to go thru. These are safety measures so travellers don’t get hurt when huge heavy luggages fall off narrow steps on escalators.

In life, many seemingly inconvenient constraints are God’s hedges on His children. We need to be trusting that his ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts..but so much more.

He gives us enough space to get us through with what we need along the way. Let us not carry too much but travel light.

Jesus said my yoke is easy n my burden is light. Are u travelling light, my friend? Cast your cares on Jesus for He cares for you.

Hedges, fences and boundaries protect us. They not only keep the bad things out. They are not only for protection from bad, they also keep the good things in. The world today is constantly filling our thoughts and minds with values and perspectives that last only for the moment. Temporal pleasures, fleeting success and momentary gratifications..

For Christian parents, we often want to shield our children from bad influence. We do the best we can to teach them the right values and Godly perspectives. But there is a limit to what we can do and how we can keep them safe. We cannot be with them 24/7 and everywhere and anywhere they go.  This is why it is important to set up good boundaries that will keep them safe. We need to teach by walk and by talk – Biblical principles that will guide them in how to face difficult situations in life. These principles are like the bars and railings at the top and bottom of the escalators. They provide just enough space for the essentials to go through. Excess and useless stuffs are filtered out. They keep our children from hurting themselves when we are not with them.

Proverbs 22:6
Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.

We need to train them young. Many life principles are caught and taught when the mind is still pliable and receptive. As parents, let us do our part and do it now.  Set up boundaries that will keep for life.

The way of blessings 福 (Fu)

福 (Fu)is a Chinese word which means fortune, happiness or luck. It is a favourite and important word in the Chinese culture – to be blessed (幸福).

As such, it is similar to the word ‘blessed’ or blessing in the Bible. While  (blessing) is a noun, 祝福 (to bless) is an active verb. Genesis records God blessed His creatures (animals in 1:22, man in 1:28, Noah in 9:1) in the context of being fruitful and increasing in number. His blessings on man include rule over all creations and provision for food (1:29). To increase in number and be fruitful is one of the fu elements. Traditional Chinese parents and grandparents are proud of their big clans. They take much delight in having many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This of course implies that they live a long life to be able to enjoy the company of many generations.

In Genesis 2, God blessed the seventh day – making it holy and being a day of rest. Rest and peace are also part of enjoying fu. God rested after he created the world. To enjoy rest, peace at the end of one’s labor is a Chinese relish. Many Chinese people are extremely industrious; they work hard to provide for their children. For many traditional Chinese, they have the mentality of wanting to provide for their children and even for their children’s children up to many generations. They hope to attain rest and peace knowing that their children will be well-provided for.

In Genesis 12, God blessed Abram. What blessings were named? Becoming a great nation and having a great name, being a blessing to all people. Chinese people put great importance on their name. The family name brings with it honor, prestige and status. To fail is to bring shame on the family name. We Chinese value our ‘face’. To save face means to avoid embarrassment and ridicule. The ‘face’ cult is a wide and deep Chinese cultural issue all on its own. To be disowned from the family for losing face is to be disinherited from the family blessings and fortunes.

In the patriarch stories, God pronounced blessings on His children – these blessings come in the form of wealth, livestock, good harvest from land, victories over enemies, children, long life, peace and well-being. All these are elements in fu: longevity, wealth, and peace to virtue, and death without illnesses. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses all lived to ripe old age and there was no mention of them dying in sickness.

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12)

While the Chinese meanings of fu and biblical blessings have similar elements, their origins and means of achieving fu are radically different. In the NT, the blessings in the beatitudes come to mind in a radically different context. In Matthew 5:3-12, Jesus preaches blessings of a different kind.

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These blessings are counter-cultural and paradoxical. First, blessed are the poor. Being poor in spirit is being dependent and helpless and relying on God’s mercy and grace. Henri Nouwen observed: “The Beatitudes say ‘Blessed are the poor.’ They don’t say ‘Blessed are those who care for the poor.'” “The followers of Jesus participate in God’s reign by humbling themselves before God, giving themselves to God, depending on God’s deliverance and following God in caring for the poor and oppressed. Blessed are the humble before God who cares for the poor and the humble.”[1]

Second, blessed are those who mourn. In our grief, we experience the blessings of unspeakable joy and comfort of God. Blessed are those who mourn (in grief and repentance) what is wrong and unjust and sincerely repent, for God comforts those who suffer and those who truly repent.[2]

Third blessing is for those who are humble. The biblical meaning of being humble is being surrendered to God and God is going to deliver us. This humility is not being mild or unassertive but being oppressed or bent over by the injustice of the ungodly. Clarence Jordan prefers to translate the word as tamed instead of meek. Blessed are those who are surrendered to God, who is the God of peace.[3] Chinese certainly do not associate humility, meekness and lowliness with fu. Neither is fu associated with want, hunger and thirst, grief and reproach or persecution.

In the OT, righteousness is concerned with preserving the peace and wholeness of the community. Therefore the fourth beatitude is for those who hunger and thirst for a justice that delivers and restores to a covenant community, for God is a God who brings such justice.[4]

The fifth blessing has to do with being merciful. The Greek word has to do with being generous in doing deeds of deliverance – deliverance from bondage of guilt, through healing and giving. Blessed are those who like God offer compassion in action, forgiveness, healing, aid and covenant steadfastness to those in need.[5] Revenge and vengeance are favored themes of Chinese martial arts movies. Taking revenge is the anti-thesis of being merciful.

The sixth beatitude is for the pure in heart. This is about a holistic devotion to God – outward action matched with integrity of heart. Blessed are those who give their whole self over to God, who is the one worthy of the heart’s full devotion.[6] There must be no split between God-serving and idol-serving. Idol-serving refers to those actions done to please people or to gain people’s approval for one’s effort.

The seventh blessing is for the peacemakers – those who are willing to make peace with their enemies as God shows love to His enemies.[7] This is similar to being merciful and not taking vengeance.

The eighth and ninth beatitudes are for those who suffer because of their practices of loyalty to Jesus and to justice.[8]

The Beatitudes speak of blessedness that comes from the heart. These blessings are not the temporal external material things of this world. These blessings speak of the eternal, intangible values that God is concerned about. To be blessed is not gaining the favor of the world, being famous or popular.  To be blessed is to be called sons of God. To be blessed is not having wealth and long life. To be blessed is inheriting the kingdom of heaven.

It is paradoxical that blessings are found in hunger and grief because in our hunger for righteousness, God fills us with blessings beyond the worldly context of fu. In fu, man seeks after wealth, health and longevity to achieve happiness. The blessings of God come on His children through the lowly birth of His Son, in His humiliating suffering and death on the cross, the Word Incarnate living among men, in a world of evil and sickness, overcoming sin and rising victorious over death to give us eternal life.

Davies & Allison link the Beatitudes to the messiahship of Jesus: The dependence of Matthew 5:3-12 upon Isaiah 61:1-3… implicitly reveals the identity of the one who proclaims the sermon on the mount…Jesus is the anointed one upon whom the Spirit of God rests. He is the Messiah. Moreover, he and his ministry are the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.[9]

Reflections on blessings as a Chinese Christian:

Fu is fortune and luck in the Chinese context. It implies coincidence. In Filipino, we say ‘suerte’ (luck) or ‘tsamba’ (chance). As a Christian, I believe that being blessed is not coincidental because blessings of God come by His grace, mercy and sovereignty. Nothing is by chance. While old Chinese philosophers believed that good and bad fortune exist in each other or that luck and calamity have no door, God’s children believe that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28). God causes all things (good and bad) to work together for good (even bad can be good but never the other way around) to those who love God, to those called (only those who have a relationship with God – those who actively love God and are actively called by God) according to His purpose. Nothing is by chance or coincidence because God’s purpose exists in all things and His purpose will never be thwarted.

To appropriate blessings, I need to follow Jesus in His humility, being poor in spirit, His whole devotion to God. When I sin, I will find joy in grief and repentance as God gives me comfort in forgiveness. I experience blessings when I am merciful and make peace with my enemies. Blessings come in being filled as I seek His righteousness and justice to reach out to those in need of God’s justice and righteousness. The way of fu is the way of the suffering Christ who remains loyal to God and to His justice.

[1] Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downer’s Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2003), 39.

[2] Ibid., 40.

[3] Ibid., 41.

[4] Ibid., 43.

[5] Ibid., 44.

[6] Ibid., 45.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 46.

[9] Ibid., 47.

Desires of the heart

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Psalm 37

1 Do not fret because of evildoers,
Be not envious toward wrongdoers.
2 For they will wither quickly like the grass
And fade like the green herb.
3 Trust in the Lord and do good;
Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.
4 Delight yourself in the Lord;
And He will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the Lord,
Trust also in Him, and He will do it.
6 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light
And your judgment as the noonday.
7 Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him;
Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way,
Because of the man who carries out wicked schemes.
8 Cease from anger and forsake wrath;
Do not fret; it leads only to evildoing.
9 For evildoers will be cut off,
But those who wait for the Lord, they will inherit the land.
10 Yet a little while and the wicked man will be no more;
And you will look carefully for his place and he will not be there.
11 But the humble will inherit the land
And will delight themselves in abundant prosperity.

What does it mean to delight myself in the Lord? In the Easy to read translation, it is to enjoy serving the Lord. I believe that to delight in the Lord is to like what God likes. Justice (v.7) as much as goodness, faithfulness (v.3,6) is a major concern of the Lord.

The psalmist tells us in v. 1 not to ‘fret’ nor be envious because of evil people. This implies impatience for justice – why aren’t they getting what they deserve. It also hints of desires to be in their shoes. It seems that evildoers are prospering.

What are we told not to do? First, We are not to fret (v.1,7,8). We are not to envy. (v.1) Why not? Evil people are transient. They do not last. (v.1,2) We are also not to be angry. (v.8) Why not? It leads only to evildoing. And evildoers will be cut off. (v.9)

Instead what are we to do?

v. 3 tells us to trust, to do good and be faithful.

To commit (v.5) is to trust, to leave it to God to do it. Do what? He will help me to be righteous (to be just) in the face of injustice. (v.6)

How? Rest and wait patiently. How? Rest in the Lord and wait for the Lord. (v.7) Why? For evildoers will have their due punishment and those who wait for the Lord will have their reward. (v.9)

How long do I have to wait? A little while..(v.10) To wait and be patient is to stretch it little by little. Konti nalang, konti pa.

Most of all, we are to be humble. Ultimately a humble heart trusts, a humble heart does good, a humble heart is faithful. It commits to depend on God – to let God be God. Humility enables us to rest in the Lord, to wait patiently for his time.

What are you waiting for, dear friend? Are you struggling in anger and envy for the wrong to be right? Is it difficult to rest and easier to fret? What is your heart’s desire? Is it aligned with God’s delight? Be assured my friend. He who delights in the Lord will have the Lord fulfil the desires of his heart. He who trusts in the Lord, waits in the Lord, humbles himself before the Lord will inherit the land. To inherit the land is to receive what God promised. And all of God’s promises are true. What He says, he will do.

Delight yourself in the Lord and He will surely give you the desires of your heart. Make it your desire to please Him – do what He likes, prioritise what He considers important. Trust, rest and wait patiently. Fret not.

You and me against the world…

This morning as I read the Bible passage from Amos 1-5. Two words stood out: You and Me.

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“‘Yet you have not returned to Me,’ declares the Lord.”

This phrase appeared 5 times (Amos 4:6,8,9,10,11). In Amos 4, God pronounced judgement on Israel’s sins – oppressing the poor and the needy (v.1). God said he’s going to punish them. “Yet they have not repented of their sins.” Again and again, God waited for them to return to him.

While not all calamities or sufferings are consequences of sins, often times, it is through difficult trials that God calls us to repent and turn to him just like his call to Israel:

For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel,
“Seek Me that you may live. (Amos 5:4)

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You and me – a song came to mind from these words… You and me against the world. This is an old song by Paul Williams I heard many years ago. Today I realise that it is a song about a mother and her child. What a fitting song – a timely reminder of my mother…

And when one of us is gone
And one is left alone to carry on
Then remembering will have to do
Memories alone will get us through
Think about the days of me and you
You and me against the world.
😔😢😌..

More than memories, I’d like to think that my mom lives on in me and in my life – as I live out her legacies of faith, hope and love in God’s amazing grace and by his unending mercy.

Through it all, it’s You and me against the world, my Creator-God and my Redeemer-Jesus and my Teacher-Holy Spirit. Let me seek You and live!

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Juggling life…

I often feel that life is pulling me in two different directions. Pride and self-pity… Confidence and doubts… security and anxiety… It seems to me like walking on the balance beam. I need to stay in the middle to keep from falling off.

Each time I think of this dilemma, I remember a Chinese song I learned from Youth summer camp at  church. The lyrics are taken from Isaiah 30:20-21.

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The Easy-to-Read version reads: The Lord might give you sorrow and pain like the bread and water you eat every day. But God is your teacher, and he will not continue to hide from you. You will see your teacher with your own eyes. If you wander from the right path, either to the right or to the left, you will hear a voice behind you saying, “You should go this way. Here is the right way.”

Living the blessed life is about staying on the right path – making the right choices. But it is easier said than done. In the world today, it is no longer just black and white. Many things have become grey.  World views and moral values are constantly changing. Aside from external influences, man in his sinful nature constantly struggles with the good and the bad, the right and the wrong. Even Christians are not exempt from this struggle.

God puts me in circumstances to teach me how to walk the balance beam. When I become proud and self-dependent, God gives me lessons of humility. When I am burdened with anxiety, God shows me he is faithful to provide for all I need. Such a fool to be worried and fearful for the what if’s of life that never happened. Indeed, in the midst of adversity and challenges in life, God’s Word is a comfort for those who take time to read and study it. If only we will listen attentively to his voice and obediently follow his call to walk in his path, we will surely stay on the balance beam.

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Which ball do you think will bounce back?

I’d like to add faith to the 5. As a Christian, faith in God is more than a ball that I juggle with. Life’s circumstances often made it seem difficult to keep all the balls up in the air. It is not about which balls will bounce back. It is about having God’s hands juggle the balls with me. Surely, God keeps all the balls up in the air. And even if any falls, it bounces back.