Conversion

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C.S. Lewis, after serving in the British army during the First World War, “returned to Oxford University, he received a First in Honour Moderations (Greek and Latin literature) in 1920, a First in Greats (Philosophy and Ancient History) in 1922, and a First in English in 1923. In 1924 he became a philosophy tutor at University College and, in 1925, was elected a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Magdalen College, where he served for 29 years until 1954.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/).

In his partial autobiography `Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life”, he reflected on his conversion:

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The prodigal son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?… The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and his compulsion is our liberation.

G.K. Chesterton, one of the dominating figures of the London literary scene in the early twentieth century, a journalist and social philosopher, converted to Catholicism at the age of 48. He wrote a poem titled `The Convert’ (1927):

After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white.
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead

The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.

As I read about their lives and encounters with God, it made me reflect on mine. When I was 16, my family moved to a new home and I shared a bedroom with my sister and we had a dressing table with a large mirror where at a short distance, you can see yourself from head to toe. It was very useful for checking out how you look or dress before going out. Unlike my sister, I hardly checked how I dressed but that did not make me less vain. Come to think of it, my vanity was more deep rooted even though my sister is 6 years older.

I was very active in school and spent most of my time out of the house. However, when alone in my bedroom, I would at times sit at the dressing table and take a look at myself. One day, I began to talk to myself at the mirror and examined my face closely. I remembered asking myself, “Who am I?” I recalled not being able to answer that question and went on to ask more questions like `What am I here for?’, ‘What is life all about?’ and `Who is God?’ Although I was raised in a family that goes to church and I went to a Methodist school (primary), it didn’t make me a believer. I know all the church speak and was involved in a lot of the activities in church since young and even excelled in them like I did for my school activities. Somehow, I had never really known why I was involved and just played along with the activities as there was nothing wrong with them. In fact you can say they were mostly good and noble stuff.

But there was always this emptiness inside, like a vacuum that couldn’t be filled with all the hype and activities going on in my life. That’s when I asked myself those questions. I took the time to stop all the `noise’ and searched my heart. Something was stirring within me and I saw bible verses at my study table that states:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication
with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 4:6-7 ESV).

They were the key verses I used to look at and quietly pray when I studied for my GCE O levels exams. It was more because I was in panic mode as I had not been studying and it was less than 3 months before the exams. I have been using God for emergencies only.

But back to the mirror reflection… this was something else. I could not let this go on. The best I can describe this feeling was I had no peace within me. There must be a reason for me to be born, to live and eventually die. It was not meant to be in vain or vain glorious. That was clear to me. It was when I acknowledged my human condition, the need to be saved from my wretchedness, and the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, that the love of God swept in to fill that vacuum so perfectly that I could only bow down in humble adoration. This was why Chesterton could say he was Lazarus and he lives. Likewise I was dead to sin and the resurrection power of Christ has brought me back to life.

What then, was the road smooth sailing? It surely wasn’t. In fact, it gets harder as long as I am in this human condition and in this world. However, the BIG difference is, the peace of God that surpasses all understanding has filled that vacuum. Life becomes richer and clearer, and God is no longer an emergency number but a blessed assurance of a relationship with an omnipresent and loving God who walks and talks with me every moment of my life. It’s no longer I that live but Christ that lives in me.

I can only conclude this experience with this passage which I read to my grandmother by her hospital bed in 2001:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life, and
I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
(Psalm 23 ESV)

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The Golden Calf

Golden Calf

Why a golden calf was chosen to be an object of worship?

That was the `million dollar’ question I asked myself when I read how the Israelites decided to find an object of worship when they could not wait for Moses to come down from the mountain. With the backdrop of how God had used Moses to bring Israel, a nation under slavery out of Egypt, witnessing mind blowing miracles like parting of the Red sea and many more, why would they want to worship another god?

I thought these people were more mind blowing in terms of how ridiculous their decisions were.

Here are the accounts of what happened:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” – Exodus 32vs1 ESV

Aaron who was Moses’ brother and assistant acceded to the people’s request and asked them to hand over their gold rings (must have been quite a lot):

And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” – Exodus 32vs8 ESV

(What happened after this will be left for another discussion. For now, the focus will be on the golden calf.)

Aaron was the one who fashioned the people’s gold (a precious commodity) into the image of a calf so it looked like he decided on the object at whim and the people accepted whatever that came out from their contribution. The calf could have been inspired by their time in Egypt where their gods had animal-like figures or it was just a harmless creature. However, I think they just wanted something else to worship. Yes, something else.

This habit was found repeatedly over the years in the people of Israel. For example, Jeroboam, one of the kings, decided to make two golden calves to put one in Bethel and the other in Dan within the kingdom so that the people will be distracted from going back to their old allegiance and remain with him (1 Kings 12:26-33). Some other kings also kept this form of idol in their kingdom among other objects of worship:

But Jehu did not turn aside from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin—that is, the golden calves that were in Bethel and in Dan. – 2 Kings 10vs29 ESV

Here is further evidenced that the people not only wanted something else, the golden calves have also become a form of distraction from God.

Reflection

The question I ask myself is, “What are the golden calves in my life?”

In other words, what is causing me to look away or be distracted from God?

The people in the biblical era were prone to their own ways and stubbornness but today, we are not spared from such distractions or attractions. The golden calves now comes in greater variety like digital and 3D and whatever that tickles the senses. However, I feel that the greatest distraction of all, especially in recent years will be our Golden Selves.

Of Kings and Chronicles – Abijah, king of Judah

Two Boats

The books of Kings and Chronicles described chronologically the various rulers of Israel (the chosen people of God) but they covered different perspectives about them. In their accounts, the kingdom of Israel was later divided and became Israel and Judah, and covered a period of about 400 years. The book of Kings started with the end of King David’s reign and the book of Chronicles spent the first nine chapters on the genealogies of the chosen people’s key characters, and then began relating the story from King David onwards.

Initially, I expected just a historical account of what happened to the chosen people that God had made a covenant with Abraham about. However, I was disturbed by the sheer number of kings who had turned away from God and followed other gods, made idols and kept the `high places’. These kings were either pure evil, power hungry, lustful, drawn by possessions, proud or influenced by such people both within and outside the kingdom.

The good kings were also not all good and only a rare few could be said so. Let’s take a closer look at one of the better kings like Abijah. I must stress  I am using the terms good and better loosely here.

After King Solomon’s death, the kingdom of Israel was divided under the reign of his son Rehoboam. So the kingdom became Israel under Jeroboam, and Judah under Rehoboam. They were at war with each other and when Rehoboam died, his son, Abijah became king of Judah.

What kind of king was Abijah? He walked in all the sins that his father did before him, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God (1 Kings 15:3 ESV). Nevertheless, when he called upon God to help in the battle against Jeroboam, God gave them victory in the battle where 500,000 were slained by Abijah’s army (2 Chronicles 13:17 ESV). It was because “for David’s sake the LORD his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem, setting up his son after him, and establishing Jerusalem” (1 Kings 15:4 ESV). It was also clear that it was not because of Abijah that the battle was won, since his heart was not wholly true to God.

Reflection

I took quite a while pondering on king Abijah and his son Asa (whom I will share in the next post). It was easier to see the failings of Abijah compared to his son. For one, Abijah was not wholly true to God. It’s like he was standing on two boats going in different directions and he mainly took his leg out from the boat that followed God.

On the one hand, Abijah made an impassioned speech when he faced the battle against Jeroboam’s people. He condemned their idolatrous calf worship and reminded them of the covenant of God with King David, their father (2 Chronicles 13:4-11). On the other hand, he walked in all the sins that his father, Rehoboam did who “built for themselves high places and pillars and Asherim… and there were also male cult prostitutes in the land. They did according to all the abominations of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” (1 Kings 14:23-24 ESV).

I saw that this was similar to times where I find it convenient to call upon God when troubles, trials or challenges come. Then when the situation becomes rosy or smooth, I would go on to focus on the pleasures of life or selfish pursuits putting God back on the shelf or worse, a locked store room. God has become like a product on the shelf of a convenience store. When used, you can just throw or chuck it somewhere to be forgotten but looked for again when needed.

My prayer is from Psalm 139:23-24 (ESV) “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” That I may learn to fear and love God truly.

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

I have wondered about this phrase before. It seems awkward or out of sync. I was thinking that I would naturally want to be on a lookout for my siblings and this should apply to friends whom I would go out on a limb for. Tracing the origin of the phrase may throw some light on why it was said in the first place.

This was from the Bible in the book of Genesis chapter 4 verses 1 to 10. Cain and Abel were the first two children born of Adam and Eve. Although they were brothers, they had different choice of work. Cain tilled the ground and Abel tended sheep. They obviously knew of God’s presence since their parents had committed the first sin which resulted in their banishment from the Garden of Eden.

As it was their practice to give offerings to honor and acknowledge God, Cain offered the fruits of his labour and Abel offered the firstborn of the flock and the fat portions to God. God accepted Abel’s offerings but not Cain’s. Cain became angry about this and pulled a long face and God asked him why the long face if he had done well. He warned Cain that he must rule over sin that was crouching at his door.

So what did Cain do? He went to talk to Abel and then killed him. As simple as that.

Thereafter, God asked Cain where was Abel and he replied, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

I was appalled at what Cain did and his outrageous answer to God for many reasons such as, he killed Abel who was his blood brother and he lied to God about it, and he had the cheek to be sarcastic about it.

Let’s figure this Cain chap and see what’s going on in his head or heart. He was not happy with God for accepting Abel’s offering. It looked like he was jealous of Abel because God favoured him. Ok, let’s backtrack…. Abel offered the first born and fat portions which meant that they were the best of his labour. Cain offered what he had taken from his harvest and it was not likely the best portion but a portion. God accepted the offering that came from a heart that put him first. When Cain was angry about this, God spoke to him and warned him about falling into sin and that he must not be ruled by it. However, an angry and perhaps jealous Cain went to speak with Abel and then killed him.

Sure looked like the acceptance of the offering must have been really important otherwise Cain would not have reacted that way. It is like when your boss praised one of your peers for a great job done and you were wondering why you were not given recognition for your work. Sounds familiar? Cain became bitter about it and focused his rage on Abel (the person who was praised). In an office situation, it would not be uncommon to hear gossips against someone who had been praised or promoted. Cain’s focus was on the favour, it is the same as when we focus on the gift and not the giver. So his bitterness and anger was directed at Abel and Cain feigned ignorance of what had happened to Abel even though he was the one who killed him.

When I reflected deeper, I found that there are many Cains among us and that I have been a Cain one way or other at some point when I say hurtful things about another person, when I join others to criticise or judge a colleague/friend, when I choose to ignore a person I didn’t like, when I choose to comment or contribute in condemning another and doing all that because I was not happy that I was not `favoured’. Now I see clearer what it means that I need to be careful as sin is crouching at my door.

Thank you for a wonderful 2014 and looking forward to 2015!

My heart is filled with gratefulness for how 2014 had gone by. It seems like a long and arduous journey up a steep mountain. All I can recall was getting through each step and at times, wondering whether I can make it through to face another day. It has been an unbelievable journey and I am humbled by the experience. It cannot be fathomed so easily in a day or week so I shall just cherish the fact that it has passed and a new phase has begun.

It is like a mountaineer who had reached the summit and went down the mountain. This time to face another challenge and would not truly know what the challenges would be like for the next `mountain’ or what lies around the next turn. This is where the test of faith comes, the entrusting of one’s life in the hands of the One who knows the future.

So here I say thank you God for seeing me through and always being there and putting up with my complaints, rants, mumblings, etc and showering me with blessings in spite of my undeserving ways. My prayer is to be more trusting in your ways and forging ahead in what you have in store for me in 2015 that I may be closer and in step with you always.

Here is the beauty of God’s creation in Lijiang, China that I had the opportunity to see at the start and end of each day:

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Wishing everyone a blessed and meaningful 2015!