You cannot but be impressed and moved by the life and work of St Francis Xavier. Here I was at Castle of Xavier, where he was born, and grew up. Its surreal. I once did a paper on Xavier’s missionary toils in Japan. Now Fr Jose gave us the saint’s birth to death sketch of his life. Brilliant student in Paris University, sportman, confident, respected, from a rich family. Gave up all to follow Christ in the mission fields. Served in Goa, India, Malacca, Indonesia, Japan, Macau. He died of sickness at age 46 while waiting to enter China. Estimated 30,000 baptisms in his one decade of preaching Christ. Stupendous. Just to get from Portugal to India took almost 2 years by ship!!
What motivated him? I asked. It was the experience of the length and breadth and height and depth of God’s love. He had done the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, and had a real trust relationship with the Lord.
I saw the tiny chapel in the castle where he likely prayed in. An unsual figure of a smiling crucified Christ dominated the chapel. All around the walls were dark figures of death, of white bones and skeletons.
Why a dead Christ with a smile? The job of saving mankind is finished? Peace and joy knowing He pleased the Father? Laugh of victory over sin, death and Satan? A smile of love as He knows He will be with His Father soon? No one knows what was on the sculptor’s mind. Anyway, it must have fascinated and moved St Francis in his younger years, or at least stayed with him through his years of hardship and suffering.
I felt grateful too when I thought of God’s call on my life. I had experienced great encounters with God during the charismatic revival of 1970s. I believe it was experiencing this vast love of God that propelled me into obeying God’s call, with all its sacrifices and service. And it was being kept in this love of God that kept me serving in WRPF all these past 39 years of ups and downs. I feel grateful to God for this grace and privilege of serving this one church all this while.
I feel very privileged and grateful. This camino experience had been made possible because my leadership wanted my sabbatical to be in the last quarter, and Lance Ng my spiritual director invited me to this spiritual exercise cum pilgrimage. I originally had signed up for an Olleh Kyushu hike but had to withdraw from it in order to give this priority. I received a kind of additional divine confirmation that I made a good choice to do this.
The sabbatical graces that I have been asking of God are threefold: 1) to have good physical and soul rest, 2) to be present and attentive to life-giving and delightful things, 3) to fall more deeply in love with Jesus.
Interestingly, in the notes handed to us, I read this insightful saying of Arrupe, a prominent leader of the Jesuits. It filled me with joy and amazement! I took a picture so its in my phone and I can reflect on it more.
It expresses my desire during this sabbatical. I ask the Lord to light a fire of love for Jesus in my soul. This is what I desire and pray for.
Today I felt happy taking a long leisurely morning walking by the sea front. The smell of the sea breeze and its caress is invigorating. I savored the moment. I am in Spain. Never thought of visiting Spain, but here I am because of God’s blessing and invitation to the camino.
We also walked to the old town with its charming, beautiful old buldings, churches and food streets. I saw many tapas restaurants, cafes and shops. We visited one St Vincent church but could only peep inside as I was unwilling to pay three euros to enter. However I had a reminder that I am in God’s hands.
Another of God’s surprises was how we unkowingly stumbled into michelin tapas restaurant and enjoyed an inexpensive late lunch.
We followed this up with a hike up a steep hill to where the huge statue of Jesus of the Sacred Heart stood. There I took some time to be in silence and prayed the Jesus Prayer.
After the walk back to the apartment I was tired and had a few hours siesta. I needed this so much. More siestas please!
We landed in Barcelona in the morning and after breakfast eight of us drove in two cars for about 8 hours to San Sebastian in Spain’s northeastern shores, stopping for a tapas lunch midway through.
There we would stay for two nights before we head down to Loyola where we begin our Camino Ignaciano.
The airbnb apartment had four bedrooms and a gorgeous seafront. We had our breakfast the next morning to the sound of waves rushing to the shore, and the smell of the sea wafted into our breakfast experience. Very refreshing.
Thankful for blessings of a pleasant and safe flight and car ride and fellowship with wonderful people who love the Lord.
It should not be surprising that I am slow to realise how physically tired I really am. After all, this is the third time in 39 years of pastoral ministry that I am having a sabbatical. This first was for three months. The second was six months. I remembered how in that second sabbatical it took me about a month to get into a rhythm of rest and play and pray and be fully rested.
Now I am on the threshold of my third sabbatical of three months. I have been clearing my leave before my sabbatical officially begins on 1 October.
It is dawning on me that I don’t have to do anything, that my schedule is no longer dictated by ministry routines, demands and expectations. I must admit it to be rather awkward, but pleasant.
I must also admit that trying to rest my body is a struggle. I become aware I am tired, so I lie in bed in the afternoon but cannot sleep. I keep resisting sleep, surfing Carousell for a bargain hybrid bike I do not really need, and scanning mostly negative news about Arsenal football club, and watching Netflix movies.
This is made worse by the haze outside. I am an outdoors person. To stay indoors is to rot. I would prefer to cycle or hike. But I have no choice. Fortunately, I have an aquarium (I built for my grandkids) to maintain.
I have been listening to Tom Wright’s YouTube video lectures and find them brilliant and thought-provoking. Find myself drawn to theological reflection. I have also been waiting on God in silence…actually more of trying to slow down in his presence.
Yesterday, I visited Bukit Batok Presbyterian Church’s Sunday service. I have some Swiss Cottage secondary school classmates who attend that church and I wanted to catch up with them. So we had breakfast at 9.45am before the service started at 10.30am. Then after the service ended at about 12.15pm we went for a long, long lunch – about 4 hours!! It was a good thing that parking was free on Sunday.
There is something about putting in time, talent and treasure that moves your affection towards something. Here we were, six men who wanted to help renovate a home for the elderly poor in Uthai Thani, four hours drive north of Bangkok, in a rural area so rustic there is no shopping mall or cinema. We landed at Bangkok’s international airport at about 9am and were straightaway driven to a rural province that is full of farms. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at Texas Chicken, and after that the towns got smaller and more rural and quiet.
Before we knew it we were moving our luggage from the van into individual colourful chalets in a neat row. SGD$10 per night per person. At this hotel rate, there was nothing to complain about. Outside all around are corn or “jagong” farms. Very serene, very quiet. The only staff a lady, whose husband and young child, stays in a makeshift hut without walls near the entrance. She is the receptionist, the housekeeper, the chambermaid, the concierge, the security guard.
After thirty minutes to settle we boarded the Volkswagen and headed to the home for the elderly poor which was about fifteen minutes drive away. Steve the highly skilled and committed YWAM worker from the US, who was in charge of the construction and renovation projects of Ruth Center, showed us the scope of the renovation project and introduced us to the elderly poor who were already settled into the home.
One building, a former temple had already been renovated and fitted for use for the current elderly folk. Another huge building, formerly a barn or storage building, was partially renovated into a kitchen, dining and activity or recreation space with a TV set. Our job was to paint, and set up the metal framework upon which to affix the wall partitions made of prefabricated mental panels and door frames. At the end, we possibly could make 4-6 bedrooms each accommodating about 2 men in each room. But this goal proved to be too ambitious.
On the next day, a Saturday we started the renovation and we left our chalet at 7am in the morning and returned back each night at about 8pm. We had all our meals at the home. And we went straight to the airport on Tuesday after breakfast, saying goodbye and thank you and photo-taking. It was straight to the airport, no shopping, no reception, almost like a special forces mission haha!!
Every one was tired but feeling grateful and satisfied and joyful after the mission ended. We felt our heart was with Ruth Center and its vision We could not see the project to completion and we felt like coming back to finish it, but it was not possible. Someone else or Steve with some assistants would have to complete the rest of the work. I find myself feeling fulfilled, since the Lord had been putting in my heart to be more incarnational in my service, to be practical and concrete in showing love, to not remain in the safety and comfort zone of pastoral work. I felt good that I had taken some baby steps in this direction and this is one of the platforms where I have been learning to obey the Lord.
I further believe such works of service are a great platform for believers who have gifts and skills of practical service to serve God in missions.
Here is a video of what we did (video will be uploaded when completed):
My colleague Alvin Lim preached an impactful sermon on Hell. He spoke on a topic which pastors seldom, if ever preached. I remember having preached about it only once. Mentioning it in passing whenever it was a part of a story, parable or text: yes, quite a few times. But as a main topic exploring different aspects of it, once in 38 years of ministry. Not a very good record. Now why did I not preach more about Hell? Well, it is not good news, not positive and probably offensive too. It’s not a topic members will get excited about. I think it has to do with warfare too. If there is one topic Satan hates it is mention about his final and eternal abode.
Alvin did a great job. First he described hell – what it looks like, what it feels like, who will be there. Then he went on to describe the fruit of the teaching about Hell. For those who are lost, it can spur them to repent and seek God. For those already saved, it could deepen their appreciation of grace, spur them to the fear of God and holy living, and motivate them to share Christ with the lost. He also went on to explain how to share about Hell to the lost. For older traditionalist, the existence of Hell is more or less accepted and to talk about it is not problematic. But to reach the younger ones with this message, it has to be argued. Young people value tolerance and believe if you are good you will avoid Hell. They find the Christian idea of hell too exclusive. We have to show them that Christianity is more tolerant and inclusive. The Heaven they prefer is exclusively for those who are good. That leaves a lot of people out. But the Christian Heaven is for those who believe in Jesus even though their past had been terrible. This means it is more inclusive, because all kinds of exes will qualify: ex-prostitutes, ex-robbers, ex-deceivers, ex-convicts, ex-self righteous religious, ex-adulterers, ex- cheaters and the list goes on and on, regardless of race, language, or previous religion, or age, or gender – as long as you trust in Christ for forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Jesus is the prophet who preached more than anyone about Hell. He did so because He knew Hell was a horrible realm for He created it for Satan and the demons. Never meant for people. But those who follow the prince of darkness will also end there. We preachers, followers of Christ, should follow suit and preach more about Hell.