For richer… for poorer

Ecclesiastes is a book in the Old Testament belonging to the genre – Wisdom Literature. It is believed to be written by King Solomon in his old age. At first glance, this book seems to take a pessimistic-fatalistic perspective on life and living. In Eccl. 1, it says:

1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”
3 What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?

Meaningless or vanity… the quality of being worthless, useless, pointless. Why so? Everything is for nothing? The ultimate question asked is what do I gain at the end of life for all the toil I do.

After reading it many times, I have come to realise that the author is wise in his observations about the realities of life. It is an account of the lessons he learned as he lived through the experiences of life – as a king with wealth and power.

Perhaps this book came from the inner convictions of the author as a rich man while looking around him to the people who are not rich. For me, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes teaches us about life and living through the dual lens of both the rich and the poor, the wise and the fool.

The wise teacher of Ecclesiastes lists down truths about life from his observations living life – a common sense that is not common because we do not pause to think and reflect about it.  Here are some of his observations:

Ecclesiastes 5

Vanity no. 1 – It is never enough.

10 Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.

Greed is the heart of all human search for wealth. The human heart is a bottomless pit. The grass is often greener on the other side of the fence. It is vanity – useless and pointless to accumulate wealth and yet never find satisfaction in riches because it is never enough.

11 As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them?

A simple point for comparison to illustrate v.11: Buffet meals!  At ‘Heat”, a restaurant in Shangrila hotel, there’s ‘Lobster Madness’ on Fridays and ‘Mad for Wagyu’ on Saturdays. Even as the food on the buffet table increases, so do the people who flock to these places to indulge. At the end of it all, when one has reached the brimming point, when he feels like vomiting, what else is there to do except to feast his eyes on them? At some point, even the sight of food can be revolting!  Isn’t this vanity?

Vanity no. 2 – Money cannot buy everything.

12 The sleep of a laborer is sweet,
whether they eat little or much,
but as for the rich, their abundance
permits them no sleep.

Money can buy a big bed, comfortable beddings, warm blankets but money cannot buy sleep. Each time I see homeless people sleeping soundly on sidewalks under the hot sun in the noise of the traffic, I am reminded of the ironies of life. I know of wealthy people having trouble sleeping – popping pills to help them sleep, on their computers in the middle of the night looking up stock markets and keeping track of their investments. How ironical that sleep often eludes me when I have time and I feel so sleepy when I need to get up!

Lesson to learn?

Contentment

Vanity no. 3 – Every one dies – the rich and the poor. In death, everyone is equal.

15 Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil
that they can carry in their hands.
16 This too is a grievous evil:

As everyone comes, so they depart,
and what do they gain,
since they toil for the wind?

17 All their days they eat in darkness,
with great frustration, affliction and anger.

But there is good news. The wise teacher has one good observation to share:

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19 Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. 20 They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.

Being rich is not a bad thing. It is good to enjoy wealth and riches, whatever material possessions that God gives. It is fitting that man reap that fruits of his labor – to enjoy their work, to enjoy the rewards of hard work. Even the ability to enjoy good things comes from God. Children of God are called to receive blessings and gifts from God with gratitude and gladness of heart – to be happy and accept with open hands and an open heart.

The dual lens of living a good life is to know that we take nothing with us when we die and to enjoy with gladness and gratitude the good things God gives us – the rewards of our labor while we live.

When life is hard, take comfort that it ends somewhere. When life is good, be grateful knowing that is it a gift from God, enjoy with gladness of heart.

The good and the bad

Question… Shall we accept good from God and not trouble? What is your answer? What kind of question is that, you ask. Well, it is a rhetorical question asked by a real person in the Bible. In Job 2:10, Job asked this question after he said to his wife: You are talking like a fool. Why? Because his wife told him to curse God and die so he would be free from his suffering. (2:9)

This question has been on my mind often. It is a reminder to me of important truths about my faith.

First, Job acknowledged that both the good and the bad come from God. It might sound heretical to say that bad things come from God who is all good. It sounds complicated but it is simply how life is lived and viewed through the lens of faith. Job believes that both the good (his wealth, his children, good name, fame, the good life) and trouble (his loss – death of his children, physical sufferings) in life are from God.

Second, Job accepted both the good and the bad. It is easy for me to receive all the good things in life – thank God and praise God for all the blessings he gives. It costs me nothing. It is human nature to be happy when life is bright and sunny – when all is well… no fear, no worries, no problem, no sickness, no trouble. But when bad things happen, when disaster strikes, when sickness comes knocking, it is human nature to cry out in pain, to cringe in horror, to run away and hide. How can a normal sane person accept trouble without the natural response inherent in his being?  His faith!

If God gives me good things, I rejoice and praise him. When God allows bad things to happen to me, I cry out and cling to him. That is how Job coped in his sufferings. He acknowledged that his troubles came because God allowed it. He believed in his heart that his life is in God’s hands – both good and bad come from his creator.

Let me illustrate with a simple example how I appropriate this important question in my life. I love my husband. He is a good man. As with all men, he has his strengths and weaknesses. We have been married for 30 years now. Today, I still struggle to accept the good and the bad in our marriage. I admire many of his good traits but I am also pained and angry with his shortcomings. Yet i realised that in both the good and the bad, God does work all things for my good. Through the pains in life, God wants me to be a better person – a better wife, a better mother, a better friend, a better follower of Jesus.

It is through the storms of life that I grow to be strong. It is in helpless situations that I depend on God to help me. It is when pride is hurt that I learn humility.

So shall we accept good from God and not trouble? Can we? Yes, we shall and yes, we can. How so? Because we know that in all things (good and bad) God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom.8:28). What is his purpose? His purpose is for us to glorify him – that all people will know God through our lives – in all things (good and bad).

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Getting up from the mud…

What do you do when things do not go the way you want them to? How do you react when people are rude and inconsiderate? How do you feel when your actions were misunderstood, criticised and taken negatively in spite of the good intentions you have?

What do you do in the face of all negativity that surrounds you? Do you complain about it? Talk to a friend? Do you retaliate in kind? Give the people who offended you a piece of your mind? Defend yourself? Do you passively ignore them? Do you pray to God to vindicate you? Do you even pray for God to avenge you? So after doing any one of these things, what next?

I have at one time or another experienced one of the scenarios above. At one time or another, I might have responded in similar ways to one of the above. What did I learn from all these negative, unpleasant situations that life brings? I learn resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back, to be elastic and stretchable. It is being adaptable and adaptive to circumstances that life brings to us. It is refusal to stay in the mud and mire. It is picking myself up from the mud, washing off the dirt and start walking again.

How do I do that? First, I stop complaining about it. Let me illustrate. When my driver/chauffeur of 10 years resigned suddenly without advanced notice, I was taken by surprise and mad. I was angry at his disrespectful behaviour. I was insulted he sent me a resignation letter delivered by his brother-in-law addressed “To whom it may concern.” I suspect it was written by his new employer. I complained about it to his brother-in-law (who is employed with me) and my friends. Then my husband told me: I guess he’s embarrassed to come personally to us to give his notice of resignation. I realise that putting myself in his shoes helped me to be less angry. It made me stop complaining. I learn to be happy for him – if he is in a better job, then good for him.

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I then turn to the positive aspects of the situation. One driver less is less expense for us. My daughter can drive herself to work, get parking reimbursement from her employer, and we save on gasoline. The driver does not need to take her to work and go back for her after work. She gets to manage her own time. There are 4 of us in the family who can drive. One driver can serve our needs. If necessary, I can drive for my children or my children can drive for me. We get to have more bonding moments in our rides. My driver gets to earn more. We increased his salary for his added load and to encourage him to do better.

What about when I quarrelled with my husband? It is always stressful to argue, to shout and vent our anger on each other. It is not pleasant to keep myself from defending my rights, and not get what I deserve. There is a need to have the last say. It is difficult to shut up and fume inside. It takes lots of energy and self-control to bite my tongue so the argument will stop. What do I do? I rationalise. I think how right I am. I get angry and say to myself – how wrong he was. Or I think how wronged I was. I cry. I sob. I indulge in self-pity. I learn both these responses do me no good. I dry my tears. I get up from the couch of self-pity and anger. I drove myself to watch a movie. It doesn’t matter what the movie is about – a drama, a comedy or a thriller – so long as I like it. One time I watched Phantom of the Opera. It was cathartic to continue crying in the movie – for something not my own sadness. Another time I watched King Arthur – the legend of the sword. The plot and action scenes in the movie made me forget my own angry tales. Then I bought myself my comfort food to bring home to eat. I ignored my husband the rest of the night. I went into the bathroom the next morning and hugged him to say I’m sorry. And he said ‘I’m sorry too.’ That’s the end of sad story… until the next one.

158411-Dolly-Parton-Quote-I-ll-be-wearing-my-high-heels-even-if-I-m-up-to.jpgReality of life is that there will always be difficult circumstances in our life – unavoidable or not, things within our control or not. Our mortal body (diseases, death) – with our sinful nature … in an evil world (war, prostitution, terrorism, oppression, etc.), in the natural world under the forces of nature – famine, typhoon, tsunami, earthquake, etc.; all these are often beyond our solutions to solve, beyond our abilities to handle to avoid or run away from. We have no choice but to face them as they come. But we do have a choice how we face them – how we respond to them with our attitude and perspective.

It is natural to feel sad when hurt, to feel angry when wronged, to feel anxious when sick. Grief is part of the emotions that God created in man – what are tears for? Today I still grieve for my parents. They died within 5 months of each other last year. How do I cope with grief. I think of our happy times. I look at old photos of us together. I remember my childhood days. I treasure the legacies they left behind. I honour their memory when I live out these legacies – the legacy to be diligent and responsible, the legacy to be prayerful, to be positive and encouraging, to be resilient when times are hard.

choose joy

Yes, it is easier said than done. Practice makes perfect. Everyday is a choice. If there’s a will, there’s a way. For Christians, we have the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is our teacher, our counsellor and guide. He guides us and enables us to get up from the mire and to continue walking.

Enough is enough.

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Three Chinese proverbs sum up the teachings of Paul to Timothy. First, 知足常楽 is the way to a happy life. 知 is know, 足 is contentment, 常is often, and 楽 is joy. Second, 比上不足比下有餘。Compare with the richer and be found wanting. Compare with the poorer and discover there’s more than enough. Third, 知足常足,終身不辱。 Contentment brings satisfaction and spares one from disgrace. See 1 Timothy 6:9-10

Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

What stands out in all 3 proverbs is 足. This Chinese word has two meanings. One is foot and the other is enough. The foot meaning is independent of the enough meaning. They are not related to each other. They just happen to be in the same form – having the same character to represent them. https://chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/3852/足-why-is-foot-also-enough?answertab=oldest#tab-top.

足 in these proverbs means enough, satisfied. When is enough, enough? The answer lies in contentment. Paul wisely taught that godliness with contentment is great gain. To be godly and to be content is an asset. It defines one’s perspective in life. You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough ~ William Blake. Lao Tzu said He who is contented is rich.

Paul explains why godliness and contentment is great gain.
1) V. 7 tells us it is because we came into the world with nothing but our birthday suit. When we die, we take nothing with us as well. What is the physical life but only food and clothing? v. 8
2) vv.9-10 teach us that greed (the opposite of contentment) leads to many woes. Indeed the thirst for wealth leads many to destruction and griefs.

Alfred Nobel wisely observed that contentment is the real wealth. Godliness with contentment is being content and grateful for all that God gives me. “Contentment is not the fulfilment of what we want but appreciation of what we have.” ~ unknown.

Through 55 years of my life, I learned lessons of contentment and gratitude. The green-eyed monster takes away joy. Theodore Roosevelt said Comparison is the thief of joy. It is wise to rejoice with those who rejoice. To be happy for other people is a level-up in the lesson of being happy. Even a higher calling to be happy for your enemy.

To be grateful for what I have and not focus on what I do not have is key to joyful living. Being contented with what I have does not mean being complacent and stop being better or achieving more. It just means that I need to have the godly perspective: to know what is enough – not too much and not too little. Not too much is about being not greedy. Not too little is about being not lazy.

When is enough, enough? God gives wisdom through the Holy Spirit. He teaches me and shows the way to true godliness and contentment. Neither greedy nor lazy.

 

 

Getting out the deep dark pit…

鑚牛角尖: this is a Chinese proverb I learned in high school. Its literal meaning is 鑚 (to drill) 牛 (cow) 角 (horn) 尖 (point).
It means to take 鑚牛角 pains; to study an insignificant [insoluble] problem; to get (oneself) into a dead end; to get into a blind alley.

I remember this proverb during the period of my deep depression. It was literally like drilling myself into the edge of the bull’s horn – and turning deeper and deeper inside and getting nowhere out.

While it is true that a cheerful heart is good medicine, a sad depressed heart is a reality in life. I experienced how hard it is to tell myself to be happy; not to worry; to think good thoughts – whatever noble, pleasant, worthy of praise etc. And it did not work. I was sad and there seemed no way out.

I remember Rev. Stephen Kwan once preached about depression and it was found to be the no. 1 killer (not cancer). Depression leads to suicide. I never thought to kill myself in the darkest pit of depression. I wished for Jesus to return sooner so my depression would end.

I recall Rev. Stephen Tong once preached on sufferings. Two truths comforted me: 1) Suffering shall pass. 患难会过去。2) Suffering is universal. It is not only me.

Rev. Johann Lai impressed on me that in suffering, rather than ask ‘why’, ask ‘how’: Lord, how do I go through this suffering? What lessons do you want me to learn? Show me how – what to do? I remember Jesus said: In the world, you will have troubles. But take heart, I have overcome the world. So Jesus, show me how to overcome troubles.

I also remember Rev. Lai shared a personal story. He said when he was a pastor in Manila, his daughter was just a little girl. One hot summer, his girl came running, “Papa, it is very hot!” He told her: Papa knows. Yes, papa knows it is very uncomfortable.

Truly, it is a comfort to know that my heavenly Father knows. He knows everything. He made me; he knows exactly how I feel when I am sad. He knows what I am going through. So when I am sad and depressed and beyond words, how to pray or what to say to him, it comforts me to know that he knows. Somehow that is enough … to know that He is with me no matter and He gets me through… He gets me out of the tip of the bull’s horn – I don’t need to 转牛角尖.

Praise the Lord!

Fear vs Joy… your choice

What is your worst fear? Mine used to be fear of being widowed. Next came fear of being maid-less. So trivial.. this 2nd one. Am not proud of it… What makes you most angry? Mine… secret…

I am upset when I am criticized especially when I think I did right. It makes me angry when justice is not served – when the right is wronged and the wrong is declared right. When someone hurt me, I could be angry and/or I could be sad. Anger could embitter me. Or I could wallow in self-pity.

One thing i observed from all these emotions – fear, anxiety, anger… they are like prison bars. When i let my anger turn to bitterness, I imprison myself in a state of self-righteousness and/or state of pathetic self-oppression. When I let anxiety overwhelm my every thought, I am in bondage to all negative possibilities and probabilities all for nothing because even as I worry about it, these worries might never come true. Even when I fret, worrying does not solve the problem.

So what to do? What is the antidote to anger, fear and worries? Paul said Rejoice always.

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How do we choose joy?  Here’s the formula.

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4

Musings on Chinese new year’s eve

Musings of a Chinese Christian on new year’s eve:

Another year is ending. Around the dinner table, a friend shared he has cancer. His positive attitude of accepting whatever God has planned for Him is encouraging. He read from Psalm 90 n was reminded of God’s peace in the midst of challenges. He said if it’s his time, he is ready. It reminded me of my prayer years ago: Lord, if you think that your purpose for my life on earth is done, then I am at peace with that.

Death is a morbid subject. Many do not like to think about it, talk about it. They avoid anything that looks like it n sounds like it. In the Chinese culture, four is not a good number because it sounds like death, whether in Mandarin, Cantonese or Fookienese. No matter what our attitude is, mortality is a reality. Even Christians are not exempted from cancer. What differentiates them is their attitude towards death. It is more than just passive, fatalistic acceptance. It is an acceptance in peace and being at peace, in hope… Hope to a future in God’s presence for eternity.

Today is the last day of the year. No one really knows for sure when will be his last day on earth. The Bible teaches us that there are three things that last: faith, hope n love. (1 Corinthians 13) God’s children live each day in faith that God loves them and He knows best. They live with hope that there is life beyond mortality. They live in love just as God loves them and calls them to love. As we usher in the new year, let us face each day with renewed faith, encouraging hope n enduring love that only our Creator gives. Happy new year!