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.

In search of blissful contentment…

Have you ever watched a baby sleeping quietly in his mother’s arms? Such picture of blissful contentment…

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King David wrote Psalm 131.  What did he say?

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David does not strike me as a proud man. So I was intrigued when he said: My heart is not proud, Lord. My eyes are not haughty. (Psalm 131:1a). It does not seem like a humble man to say of himself as being not proud, is it?  I used to believe that humility is something one loses when he thinks he has it. But that is not the case here. Why?

He said something more that helps to explain the context – where he’s coming from when he said he’s not proud. He said: I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. (131:1b)

David prayed: “I am not proud, Lord.” That he addressed God as Lord, showed his submission before a greater person. David was not ‘ambitious.’ In simple terms, he did not strive to understand great matters – things that are beyond his understanding… things too wonderful for him to comprehend.

v. 2 gives us further context – that of contentment. Contentment of a weaned child. What does that mean? What is a weaned child? Why did David use that metaphor?

What is the significance of weaning a child in the Bible? Gen. 21:8

Answer: According to Jewish custom, the time when a child is weaned is cause for celebration. A weaned child has survived the fragile stage of infancy and can now eat solid food rather than breastfeed from his or her mother. (https://www.gotquestions.org/weaning-child-bible.html)

To be weaned like a child is to be off the needs of this world. To be off the need for significance, for affirmation, for self-righteousness and self-reliance. A weaned child is content in his mother’s arms. He knows he will be given solid food instead of his usual milk.

There are four significant themes in the 3 short verses. First is that of pride. David confidently prayed that he is not proud – not in his heart nor in his eyes. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. (Matt. 12:34b) When I read haughty eyes, what comes to mind is looking down on others. Haughty eyes imply that I am better than you are. David was neither proud nor haughty. He was the humble shepherd boy who fought Goliath in the name of his God who helped him fight the lions to protect his sheep. He was the humble servant and musician of King Saul. He spared Saul’s life time and time again even when Saul tried to kill him.. even he was already anointed by Samuel to be king to replace Saul.

Second word is ambition. David does not think important to know all there is to know, to understand things that are beyond him. He neither had ambition to fight a giant nor to become a king. Why?

Contentment: Because he is content like a weaned child. Godliness with contentment is great gain. When has a weaned child ever sought to be wise, all-knowing, powerful and influential? There is calmness and quiet in the soul when there is contentment… no striving, no struggling, no contentious spirit.

Application:
Pride is at the heart of man. We are all proud by nature. Even in our good works and ministry in the name of God, even as we know the value of God’s approval, perhaps we seek more the approval of men. We might even think more of ourselves than what God thinks of us. Adam was lured into wanting to be like God. Pride and ambition often get us into a state of dissatisfaction, of anxious striving and chasing after the wind.

Contentment is being at peace like a weaned child – getting satisfaction and peace from knowing that his needs are taken care of. As God’s children, we are called to dependence on God for all our needs and wants. We trust and we rest.

Finally, we declare our hope. We know it is possible to attain such state of complete peace. We call on others to go on the road with us in hope… hope in the Lord who provides us with everything that we need and call us to be everything that we hope to be.

Psalm 131
A song of ascents. Of David.

1 My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
2 But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
3 Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.

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.

 

 

饮水思源 Remembering the Source

饮水思原 is a Chinese proverb, its literal meaning: drink (饮) water (水) think (思) source (原).

I remember hubby used to tell me while driving when we passed by a certain highway, that he used to commute many rides to visit his client along that road. If he should find it necessary to commute again, he would be just as grateful to do so just like he used to.

Today, even as I live in a comfortable house, I want to remember with fondness the small apartment my family lived in when I was in high school. There was just one small bedroom to fit one bed for my parents. Marian and I slept in our foldable beds in the kitchen/dining area. Even so, we were a happy blessed family – we had a school and a church – just a few minutes walk away. We had more than one place to call home.

In the OT, God again and again, reminded that the Israelites were once slaves and foreigners in the land of Egypt. They were redeemed and called to the promise land by the love of God – who chose them as His own people. As such, they were called to remember to treat the needy/poor/marginalized people – orphans/widows/foreigners as God treated them.

The Christian is called to a life of remembering the grace of God. He is to remember His Creator – the source from whom all blessings flow. The journey is not always smooth but there is always assurance that God sees him through.

All my life is about God’s grace from the first day I was born, God saved me from being an orphan when He saved my mom from bleeding to death when she gave birth to me. When i lost my first baby – a boy, it was a painful event for me. God gave me 3 daughters instead. When I got the big C, I experienced God’s presence more than any moment in my life – his warm embrace got me through all the treatment until today. When I went through the dark night of the soul – in my depression, God walked me through. The journey is not yet over – each day is a challenge to stay joyful in spite of many unhappy things that the reality of life brings. How do I cope with these challenges? I remember.. I recall… I recount God’s blessings to me in the past.. how He healed me, how He forgave me.. how He saw me through, how He held my hand… how He embraced me and comforted me.. how He disciplined me.

From past to present, in the days to come, let me not forget – God is good and he will see me through.

Be sad and be glad…

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Ecclesiastes 3 New International Version (NIV)

1 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,

4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,

9 What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. 14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.

Time is a theme i much like to write about. When mama passed away, I wrote about “a time to be born and a time to die” in her eulogy. Few weeks after she died, I attended a wake and a wedding.
3 Sundays ago, papa passed on. 2 Sundays ago, I attended a wedding. Yesterday, I attended a wake. Again, there is a time to be sad and a time to be glad; a time to shed tears and a time to share laughter.

For me, these are times for both – grief and joy; lament and praise. Why?
Because God has made everything beautiful in its time. Its time – we often say in His time. Today I am reminded, it is about ‘ITS’ time – the time to do as time is set for whatever is to be done; a time to be whatever fitting for the time to be.

Because God has also set eternity in my heart… eternity is a sense of timelessness – essence of continuing actions and reactions simultaneously happening in my heart and thoughts.

Indeed, no human mind can understand what God has done since the beginning of time – nor will we ever imagine what God will do till the end of time.

Today is a time to rejoice because God has made it so that man can find nothing better than to be happy and to do good while they are in time. To be happy – to be born, to plant, to laugh, to dance… To do good even when uprooting, to comfort people and seek comfort in grieving and mourning; to do good in rejoicing with those who rejoice and to do good in grieving with those who grieve. This is what God called me to do today… to be happy and to be sad; to laugh and to weep.. because there is a time for everything and everything in its time.

How about you friend? Where are you now in time? Do you know the God who created you… the Creator of time? What are you doing with your time?

Papa remembers

Papa passed away October 9, 2016.  Today, I reviewed my journal written October 24, 2015:

This morning when I arrived with mama from picking her up at St. Luke’s, papa was awake. So I said: Pa, goa biya la. (Pa, I’m 薇阿)
Papa: Ah, di biya ba? Di ya beh khih tang kiah ba? (Are you 薇阿?You haven’t gone to 东京?)
I am happily surprised. He remembers. I told him I am going to Japan last Saturday. That was a week ago. It made me think how like the Sunday school children I used to teach – when I often wondered if they understood the things I said, much less remember them. So with my father, these days, the rare times that he is not asleep when I visit, I often just sit quietly beside him on his bed; thinking about what to say to him and often, it is either he did not understand what I was talking about, or he did not have anything to say in reply to what I said, or he would just say ‘好阿’ in Amoy. I am thankful that papa still has his more lucid moments. He still recalls what I said to him. He still recognizes me.
His next question and often-asked question: Biya, kui tiam? (Biya, what time is it?) Today he even asked, Kih nah si pai lak? (Is today Saturday?)
I realized he knows I visit him every Saturday.

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Poignant thought: what does he think about when he’s not sleeping? Is he wondering what time it is? How does it feel to be lying in bed all day with no one to talk to except your wife and caregiver? And the most that you tell your caregiver is that you want to go to the toilet or that she tells you it’s time to eat. Is that why he often asks what time it is? Time must be going so slowly – day to day.. moment to moment.

All things possible… in contentment

This verse from Philippians 4:13 is one favourite verse many Christians like to recite – as if in it lies the secret to being like superman! Doing all things, making all things possible – of course with the important ingredient/phrase – through Christ who gives me strength. I used to think that this verse is a great one to memorise because then I can be empowered to do all things – until one day, I heard in the seminary classroom that this verse was written in the context of being generous.
Paul wrote this verse in the context of the having received the gift of the Philippians – financial gift. Yet, v.11 tells us that Paul did not speak from want – as in ‘want’ for ‘need’ – lacking the necessities of life. What’s his secret? He learned an important lesson in life. the important lesson of contentment – no matter his circumstance! Oh it is so easy to say, I am content with my life – when I live so comfortably – with the comforts that life has to offer. But to say that I am content even when I am in prison or when I have gone through beatings, and shipwrecks and enemies’ persecution… that is the true essence of contentment. Paul learned – he was not born like that. He learned to get along in humble means, he learned to live in good times and bad. He learned the secret of being full and going on empty stomach – in prosperity and in poverty! This is the context of Paul’s doing all things – he is content in all circumstances of life because his strength is found in Jesus Christ. He is the one who gives us strength to rejoice always – to rejoice greatly, to be content in ‘whatever circumstances’ that we are in.

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Philippians 4

10 But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. 11 Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. 12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. 13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. 14 Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction.