Concentrated on the ministry of the Word

The church today needs the word and men set apart for prayer and preaching the word. Too often the pastor is distracted by other urgent tasks that draws attending to prayer and word. This temptation and pressure is of course not new to modern times. It happened then too.

The infant church of the first century grew through the apostles’ preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ. However, after some time an internal problem arose that could have derailed the momentum of the infant church. The Greek-speaking widows were not being well cared for by the church. Pastoral help and administrative distribution of welfare fell short. It was a glaring gap in the Spirit-filled church.

There was pressure on the apostles to set aside their prayer and preaching times and made time for distributing food.  However by the grace of God, spiritual wisdom and order prevailed. The apostles declared, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables….. (pick out reliable men we can entrust with this task –italics mine)…….But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Act 6:2-4 ESV). So other spiritual men, all Greek speaking, were appointed to the task of serving the pastoral and administrative need. It proved to be a wise move for the next verse described the outcome: “The word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (verse 7).

Why is the ministry of the word so vital? Well for one thing, it builds faith, hope and love. For another, “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16,17). Pray that the ministry of the Word will prosper and be given prominence in WRPF, and anointed people will be set apart to focus on this work of grace.

Time for reflection: December

overflowing with gratitudeChristmas is the season for reflection. It is December. Its the year’s end. Often it is seen as a time to holiday and wind down. Nothing wrong with that. It is time also to look back on the year. God has been with you every day of the whole year. We forget his inconspicuous presence in everyday happenings of regular living. Reflection helps us to unearth those gems and deepen our love and gratitude for our Lord. So we look back and count as many blessings and write a super long list of how God has shown up and blessed us through events, experiences and people. Then as holy priests we offer to the Lord a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise.

Of course there were also those so-called negative experiences. Times when we were upset, angry, jealous, bitter, furious, and fell into temptations of various kinds. We felt humiliated, discouraged or remorseful. We wanted to give up. Run away. Hide in a hole forever. These feeling need to be processed in the context of the incidents in which they arose. Talk to the Lord about them one by one and sit and listen. Let the finished work sink in. There are gems of self- and God- discovery to be unearthed. Each year should enrich you with bags of  experiences processed via the cross of Christ.

So carve out some time and take time to reflect.  Take a break and shut down all electronic and digital devices for a day or a half-day. Eat, sleep, pray, journal and let God love you.

My warmest Christmas wishes to all friends and visitors of this blog. The Lord bless you with hope and peace!

OMF Bungalow: praying amidst charming surroundings

OMF from Strawberry Park and Pahang Sultan's bugalow in background

Koh Seng Chor with me

my roomElaine's roomhall

The kindness of the Lord

It has been some years since I last went up to OMF Bungalow in Cameron Highlands. So I was glad to know that the last two rooms available in the bungalow were available for Koh Seng Chor, the pastor of Evangel Christian Church, and myself. My daughter wanted to tag along to have her prayer retreat so she had to share a room with me as there were no other rooms available. That would mean an inconvenience for prayer, but she’s my one and only daughter! It is always better to be able to pray, sleep and read anyway and anytime you want, and sharing a room with another restricts this to some extent. However, the Lord was kind, for as soon as we arrived we were told the good news that all three of us would have individual rooms to ourselves due to some cancellation.

Elaine in garden

Eat, sleep, pray, share

Most of the morning and night  hours were spent alone in the room or outside, meditating and praying through Psalms 55, reading old journal entries, and writing new ones. On occasion Seng Chor and I would take relaxed afternoon walks in the cool Cameron air chatting all Brinchang walkthe way down to Chefu or Brinchang town, sharing our heart and telling grandfather stories, literally. My daughter, well, she wanted her God-space, so she was left alone except during meal times. Meal times were fun as we sat with and got to know some American missionary couples and Malaysian Chinese ladies who were also staying there.

Faded charm of the 60’s and 70’s

The food was warm and nourishing and the Cameron vegetables were fresh and deliciously cooked by Mrs Chye, the caretaker. The beverages and the superb cookies were free and available 24/7. The charm of the ferntips, gourd and fish in Thai sweet sauceplace is its tired and dated look – like going back to a warm and welcoming home in the 60’s and 70’s. This place was once owned by a Chinese businessman and built in 1933 before being bought over by China Inland Mission (now OMF), a missionary organization. While staying there you could fantasize that you were that tycoon, albeit only for a few days, enjoying the striking views outside your large garden and with your helpers cooking and cleaning your home, while you lounge around without a care in the world.

mossy forestTouring around

My daughter and I went for a tour of Mt Brinchang, the mossy forest, and the BOH tea plantation. We also visited Brinchang town and Tanah Rata, and there being no place in the “inn”, we stayed a night at Strawberry Park hotel and had breakfast before we departed for home in the 10am bus to Singapore. We arrived home close to 7 pm on Friday.

Tea at BOH tea plantation

Book review of Streams of Living Water by Richard J. Foster

streams of living waterA mature faith

One of the marks of a mature faith is that it is sufficiently secure to explore other Christian traditions and discover in them good which they can incorporate into their life without losing their roots in the essentials of faith in Christ. One of the early steps we can take to hop out of our wells and widen our appreciation of the larger body of Christ is to read this interesting book. It is substantial without being too academic. It will give you food for thought, and stimulate desire for holistic growth.

General content and development

The author identifies six traditions from the various movements in church history and categorizes them according to their unique emphasis in faith and practice. They are the contemplative, the holiness, the charismatic, social justice, the evangelical, and the incarnational. He argues that the essence of these major traditions find their embodiment in the person of Jesus, and since we are called to follow Him, these traditions and practices are to be nurtured in the life of the believer and the church. He unpacks each tradition by using 3 persons as illustrations: a historical figure; a Bible character; and a contemporary person. The he describes the tradition and lists its strengths and perils and suggest practical applications.

One example of how he develops his subject is the charismatic tradition where he first uses St Francis of Assisi as the historical figure that epitomizes this stream; and then St Paul the apostle as the biblical example of the charismatic; and finally, James Seymour, the leader in the Azusa Street outpouring, as a contemporary example. Next he shows how the tradition is supported by scripture. Moving from this base, he lists charismatic strengths, one of which is empowering to serve; and a list of perils, one of which is rejecting the rational and intellectual. Finally he gives practical suggestions of how to be more open to follow the promptings of the Spirit.

Debatable choices and Third World absence

Naturally it is debatable who would be the best candidate to represent each stream. For example, the use of St Francis to illustrate the charismatic tradition could just as well, or even better represent the social justice tradition. Dietrich Bonhoeffer could be a candidate for social justice instead of holiness. I would have thought someone like bishop Oscar Romero should not be left out of the book completely. He should at least appear in the list of notable figures and significant movements in appendix B. Sadly sterling Asian men of God like Watchman Nee, John Sung, Bakht Singh and Wang Ming Dao were conspicuously absent.

The book does not sufficiently argue the how and why he arrived at the six traditions and not one less, or one more? Could there have been an additional tradition that did not make the list and why not. It would have been enlightening and more convincing if the reader had some access to the arguments, even if only in an appendix.

An incomplete end?

The conclusion was too abrupt. He could have debated about whether the Bible posits an ideal of every Christian having all these six traditions in full mature expression, or whether what is seen of the six traditions, and in Jesus is meant to be expressed not through the individual, but through the corporate or community expression of the Body of Christ, whether in its local expression, or in the universal expression. It would have been good for the author to identify the contemporary situation: are all streams represented in today’s church? Which denomination is displaying which tradition best? And discuss if what God intended is actually having different members or “tribes” of his worldwide church displaying these streams in varying strengths so that together they present the fullness and the ideal.

A good and important read

However what I like about the book are many. This book has broadened my perspective and understanding. The natural tendency is to be entrenched in our own tradition and to denigrate those of others. Reading this has deepened my appreciation of the richness of the faith that the Lord of history has deposited into the life of the church over centuries, a treasure not to be despised.

Another asset is how the author shows that the various strands are inter-related to each other. Out of a rich contemplative life would flow a life of holiness and the charismata of the Holy Spirit. Logically too such a person would have power to be and to live compassionately. Justice and compassion cannot go without the evangelical witness of the Gospel message. And all these traditions must be embodied in people who live ordinary everyday lives and this is the incarnational tradition. What a joyful dance the inter-relationships point to!

richard j fosterRichard J Foster is a well known author of best selling books like “Celebration of Discipline”, “Prayer” and other books on spirituality and spiritual disciplines. The tradition that nourished him is the social justice tradition of the Quakers. There are Quakers of the more liberal sort, and those that are very evangelical, and he belongs to the latter.

This is also one book where I read all the appendices. The summary of church history from the lens of the six traditions and the list of notable persons and movements in history was a different approach I liked. And though they were not as exhaustive as I would prefer it to be with respect to Asian and African representation, they helped to strengthen the author’s thesis. I have benefited much from reading this book and will explore further its proper application to life.

Spiritual exercises: retreat, restore, re-configure

Room 212 balcony view

Nature’s  welcome

Despite divine assurances that this lengthy retreat would do me good, it was with some apprehension that I settled into the room 212 that would be my home for thirty five days. Air Asia had flown me into Chiang Mai, Thailand, at about eleven plus, and I was glad to be at the Seven Fountains retreat centre before midnight. All the rooms in the block had been renovated with attached bathrooms and I was the first guest to enjoy it. When I awoke the next day, a beautiful balcony view welcomed me. A huge raintree and a flame of the forest spread their gracious branches to hug me. Energetic squirrels, mynahs and butterflies looked for breakfast. This is the day the Lord has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it.

Gregory, Kenny, David Townsend, Peter

Together with others on a journey

The last meeting I had with David Townsend was in November 2010. He was directing my ten day retreat. My apprehension still lingered as we caught up with developments in the centre and what’s been happening with me. He gave me a well known passage to meditate on. It’s about God’s care for us and our value in his eyes being much more than birds and lilies. Another passage from Psalms said, My meditation of Him shall be sweet, and that was the word that dissolved my apprehension.

Later in the day, I bumped into the other two retreatants, Gregory Chan and Peter Anthoney, both Malaysians and final year seminarians. Over time a bond would develop amongst us, despite the solitude and silence, for we were going through a similar retreat program.

Many wonder how people can be in prayer, solitude and silence for many weeks. Most cannot keep silent for even a day.  I too wondered. Thus my early twofold anxiety: Will I be able to bear the lengthy solitude? Will it bring about the rejuvenation of a burnout pastor? Will the Lord accomplish his gracious restoration work?

Momentum of prayer

room with a viewThe schedule of each day was rhythmic. Three to five periods of an hour or more each were set apart for meditation, prayer and journaling. Meditation was mainly on Gospel passages and a few other contemplative exercises. The daily 40 minute morning meeting with David, my spiritual director, would be followed by one period; after lunch there would be two periods; and after dinner, one period. Meals were at 7am, 12 noon, and 6.30pm. Filling in were the naps, the jogs and walks, reading Men in White, a book about Singapore’s ruling party, enjoying nature at the grounds and at the Huay Khaew reservoir. The mind and heart were gently and imperceptibly led into a momentum of prayer that gave me a sense of progress, and gave me a booster when I hit the wall.

Weekends were welcome as they seem to give a feeling of lightness and change. There were the Sunday services in Thai and English in the chapel of the retreat center. It was different from the weekdays: more people both expatriate and Thai could be seen on the grounds. The food was sometimes very special or way below par.  The streets and Chiang Mai university seemed empty and sluggish. It felt less intense during the weekends.

School of discipleship, prayer and discernment

How would I personally describe the retreat program? It was a school of discipleship, prayer and discernment. God’s love was revealed through creation and redemption. This love was magnified as it was contrasted with human sins and weaknesses disfiguring all of creation. The meditations and prayer covered creation and fall, incarnation, the life and ministry of Jesus, the passion week, the resurrection appearances, the ascension, the coming again and Pentecost. A persistent focus was on seeing Jesus more clearly, labyrinthloving Him more dearly, and following Him more nearly. At several points in the retreat the challenge of discipleship came to the foreground: as you have viewed and experienced God’s vast love in meditation and prayer, what is your response? Romans 12: 1 was in operation: in view of God’s mercy, I offered myself as a living sacrifice. Consecration of all that I am and have naturally followed when I experience the grace of God afresh. It was both struggle and grace as I came to finally pray, as Jesus did in Gethsemane, Father, not my will, but Yours be done.  To be willing to do whatever He wills, at whatever the cost, for the greater glory of God was the end point intended.

It was also a school of prayer as I would learn to pray with the imagination, with honest feelings, with reverence and depth. There were no “How to’s” or techniques taught.  Prayed as you can, not as you should or must, is one of the memorable gems that the My cup overflowsdirector underlined in one of the sessions. So with whatever knowledge or experience I had thus far, I went on my knees or sat and prayed.  Learning to discern the spiritual movements in my heart and how to make better decisions is another growth area for me. This was relevant and interesting and it helped me see the important role of discerning of spirits in the church, and resulted in a strong personal desire for this grace-gift.

Restoration and re-configuration

The Lord was gracious and faithful and He ministered to me directly in prayer and meditation. Like a shepherd He tended to me. He made me lie down in a restful atmosphere and feed on nutrient rich pastures and still waters. He restored my soul. He showed me the right path to take and promised to be with me through thick and thin. He dealt with the past, filled me with His presence, and gave me hope for the future.

The immediate effects of the prayer retreat is best described metaphorically. It felt like a Celebration at Tsunami - we Finally did it!spiritual re-configuration had taken place. Changed focus, increased knowledge and awareness, spiritual aliveness and alertness, and rejuvenation of my desires to serve God’s people. A better operating system was installed. To change to a geographical metaphor, the tectonic plates of my soul have moved and the fault lines have closed. Revived, re-configured re-commissioned, and ready to go in peace and serve the Lord.

It took thirty five days to complete my retreat program. The first few days was for preparation and the last one or two was for reflection on and thanksgiving for what the Lord has revealed of Himself and had done in me.

Having my wife around and Juniper Tree

a Juniper Tree chaletMy wife joined me for a short prayer retreat and vacation at the tail end. It was wonderful to have her with me as I unwound in the last few days. She enjoyed her three day prayer retreat with another director, Puspo.  At the same time, it was good I could show her around some of the interesting places outside Seven Fountains,  and fete her with Japanese food at the popular Tsunami restaurant nearby. Later we moved to another place in Chiang Mai called the Juniper Tree. From there we idled, and shopped at the large Airport Central Shopping Mall and the night bazaar. The Juniper Tree was a small hotel with a swimming pool bought over by a ministry that sought to provide a place for cross cultural missionaries to rest, recuperate, and be refreshed.enjoying a foot massage after shopping Elijah suffered burnout and sat under a juniper tree and the angel fed him with food and he slept under the tree. Many of the missionaries I saw there were Caucasians serving in various countries in Asia. Many came to rest and be refreshed and unwind from the stresses of their cross cultural work. Some came because of medical needs, and two were about to deliver babies. One or two came to renew their visas.

The path ahead

Back home I continued in my reflections and readings of books on the spiritual dynamics of the retreat program, spiritual direction, and the discerning of spirits. A friend, pastor Seng Chor had given me a book titled, Sacred Listening – James Wakefield, a Protestant  adaptation of the retreat program for lay people who cannot take a full 30 days retreat. The program runs for 6 mothns requiring an hour and a half everyday the path aheadfor the exercises. Adapting what I experienced for church use would be a useful project for me to work on. Furthermore, recently, the recommended book list for my third AGST master’s module (Spirituality and Faith Development) arrived and I am now beginning to read and enjoy the stuff:

To Know As We Are Known – Palmer

Streams of Living Water – Foster

Exploring Christian Spirituality – Collins

………..and many other readings. Looks like another enjoyable and enlightening module awaits me in the middle of September. That would be the last month of my sabbatical. October first, by the grace of God, I will be back shepherding the flock with renewed heart and mind and body.

Nestled in His arms, rested in His love

trusting loveMore sleep

Freed from regular work, I have given myself permission to sleep more than I have slept before. When I feel drowsy or tired, I would just go to bed and lie down for a nap. So in addition to my regular sleep I have been sleeping at any hour of the morning, or afternoon or evening. A pastor friend on long leave told me he slept at ten at night, and woke up at about ten every morning for several weeks. Another pastor friend on sabbatical dreamt of church work every night for several months. It’s like the ignition key was removed but the engine was still running….or slowly winding down.

More writing, more prayer

child thrown by fatherEvery morning I wake up and go straight to the laptop and power it on. Then its straight to the 4EverJournal, my online journal. Password. Click on the day and start writing and praying whatever comes to mind without censorship. It has been a pleasure to get into this habit. It doesn’t go beyond 500 words. At least not yet. It is peppered with prayers to Pa. Sometimes I would go to e-Sword and read a verse from Psalm 42 and meditate and then write my response in the notes. And then it is back to the journal.

Being like a little child trusting the Father’s love has been an experience that has been growing on me. Sometimes my sanctified imagination sees the Father swooping me up and throwing me into the air and catching me in his hug. Many squeals of delight later, I find myself nestled in His arms and rested in His love.

More trusting

The Lord has been guiding my paths and making each day so pleasant to the taste. To see His hand of love in the little detailing of life’s unfolding has been such a delight. Even the date due reading assignments seemed light and pleasant. The project work was done in a breeze. The Lord has been giving me some inspiration for Sunday’s message in the New Covenant Church.

Tomorrow I take a coach to Kuala Lumpur, and by God’s providence I take the same coach as pastor Mary Tham, my colleague, who is completing her Elijah House ministry journey. Lord you are so kind with the little details. It’s always nice to have good company.