30 Mar 2015

Holy Week 2: who do you think you are?

I remember my late father. He who went to school (before he got kicked out for playing the fool too much) under the British... he used to write the most formal notes for us at times, such as this:

To whom it may concern,
Father is out. The water in the kettle is boiled.

This is the language he knew when it comes to writing. We found it hilarious and laughed secretly behind his back.

Today as Jesus enters and walks around the temple area, a group of rulers+teachers+elders (yes, the power religious triad combo of the day) comes up to him, couches their sneering in polite-sounding words, 
"Tell us, by what authority you are doing these things..Who gave you this authority?" {Luke 20} -- 
when what they meant was no less: 
"Who the heck do you think you are? Tell us the true source of your power!".
Over the years, I have developed very mixed feelings towards these religious leaders. As a young believer, it was at first easy to just cast them as the 'bad guys'. Later they would be 'thick', 'proud', 'stubborn', 'political', 'insecure'....

The reason the feelings became mixed is simple: I found all those same words I describe them with; many insinuated through the sermons we hear -- I found I could describe myself the same way. I was dense, proud, stubborn, insecure and more. I remember railing at God in a season of painful confusion, "who do you think you are?!". I could not make sense of what was happening and what God was up to.

God is not easy to get.

In fact, Jesus cleverly dodges their question. There are times God doesn't answer us because we are not asking the right questions. He finds it needful to use His silence to develop is us a finer-tuned hearing.

With the religious powerhouses still in audience, Jesus goes on to tell an evocative story. It's a story we can all get - as long as the story it is about 'others'.  "May this never be!" we would have echoed with the listeners. How can the tenants be so ungrateful and downright evil to ignore the rightful  of the owner; to the extent of hoping to inherit the land by killing his son?!

 Jesus looks at them directly and counter-warns them of the grave danger they are in; for they are about to do the exact thing they just deplored:
"The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on who it falls will be crushed."

These are words God gave to Isaiah {see chap 8} the prophet in a revelation of who He is: I am a God you cannot easily get people. Some of you will stumble so bad, you will be so challenged... some of you will not survive a true encounter with God. Hard, harsh words.

Religious pedigree and legacy will not ensure anything. Crushed and shattered - those who refuse God's self-revelation will be swept off - that's the sense in the word used.

God endures our questions and challenges. But He turns and questions us.

The most classic example we have of this is found in the story of Job. The point of that story? God doesn't owe us an answer. We owe him an accounting.

And this week, if instead of counting on our filthy rags-righteousness, we would ask to see God afresh... gazing on God-condensed/interpreted/simplified in Jesus - we would see God wants to deal with the accounts. In the story Jesus told, God sent prophets and finally His own Son!

It is a clear word of warning to the religious elite that they were in danger of losing what they considered their inalienable right to God's favour. They get it; but instead of repentance, they looked for a way to arrest him.

They get it but they don't - because they would not accept this lowly carpenter-trained leader of a ragamuffin group to be anymore than they would allow him to be. Jesus simply did not match their expectations. Jesus did not fit their frame of reference.

Jesus was - not - like them.

Who do you think Jesus is, really?

Does He surprise, perhaps offend you? Did you feel he could have handled your situation differently, better?

Perhaps like me, you may find as you imagine yourself there, you too would find the story of injustice unbearable and cry out too, "may this never be!". Then Jesus asks you to recall the words of Isaiah - and you realise the story is a warning of the hypocrisy and hardness of our hearts: we don't really want God's justice; what we want is His favour -- on.us. And deep in the recesses of our hearts is that creeper of self-righteousness that quickly clings and wraps around people and situations... a dangerous weed that turns on its host with the venom of self-condemnation as easily as it clouds our hearts with judgmentalism.

The heresy of Grace is that we still link it with a sense of being-deserving. So those who are not so blessed are therefore not-so-deserving.

Would you allow yourself to break over your inability to grasp this God-man, and in your breaking and spiritual poverty open up fresh spaces for God to enter in, this week?

Jesus did not stop with this one story. He persisted. He told three more parables, answered more questions and finally in a clear demonstration of his sorrow over their coming destruction, wept over Jerusalem.

God coaxes, works wonders, enthralls... and weeps.

But He is the capstone. His heart breaks for us. Our response is to let ourselves be broken as we encounter Him. May we find him our sanctuary - in a deeper sense this week.

"The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread,
and he will be a sanctuary; ...
a stone
a trap and a snare." ~ Isaiah 8v13-14

27 Mar 2015

Holy Week 1: Jesus enters Jerusalem

Thousands throng the walkways, paths and trails even as more keep arriving. It is the high point of all Jewish life: the Feast. All good Jews would make an effort to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast. It is going to be eight heady days of busyness and business as Jews prepare to meet the requirements of the Law and the rules set down by the rabbinic tradition over the centuries in order to observe the Passover.

Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem at this time. He is aware that his final moments and the great cataclysmic purpose of his life is about to unfold. It won't be his first visit to Jerusalem; but he must now fully assert his identity and complete his mission.

This final week sees Jesus reveal God's heart in his actions, his teaching and his responses to his enemies.

actions ~
the ride
Historically, the Roman overlords love to use this Feast season to remind the Jews of their power. Often the Roman governor of Judea would ride up to Jerusalem from his coastal residence in the west because right at this time, the population will swell  from its usual 50,000 to at least 200,000! An opportune time to impress and suppress the crowds!
The governor would come in all of his imperial majesty to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge. It would be a "..visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot solders, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold", with sounds to match: "the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.  The swirling of dust.  The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful."
This is the usual mood.

Jesus chooses to ride into Jerusalem too. The Gospel accounts tell us that it wasn't just Jesus' intent. It was also the longing and hope of the people - for they have heard of his miracles, especially the raising of Lazarus - and now, they are gathering....as one people; what a better time to unite and defeat the Romans! So the people came bearing branches and shouting, "Hosanna, blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!"
Immediately, Jesus' actions stir consternation and questions. Those who faithfully read their Scriptures may recall the prophet Zecahriah's words that the king would ride on a donkey. Yet, compared to the noise and pomp of the Roman ruler, this would be so ... weak. Surely, Jesus would quickly surprise everyone and show forth the great powers of God Almighty as God did when he parted the Red Sea for Moses and the rag tag Israelites scared-to-death as the loud poundng calvary of Pharaoh drew near....
We are pretty much the same. Faced with any situation we cannot bear, all we want is for the Saviour to come and save us with a wondrous act of deliverance; all the better if it is a mighty observable miracle to give us a solid-gold testimony of precise, definite victory!
the temple clean-out
Instead, Jesus enters the temple and cleans his own people out!
Come on, surely God can cut us some slack? We are the ones suffering. The bad guys are out there God! Why pick on us, fixate on our details... we are just trying to obey you, make things work out...be faithful...
But Jesus chases to the heart and the mild donkey-riding king is suddenly wielding whip and lashing out that we have betrayed God's intent. Ouch.
Honestly, by this time, I feel that the crowd's sentiments would begin to shift. 
Isn't it the same for us? Our faith shifts too as our expectations go unmet...

actions, teaching, and the way he responds to his disciples and his enemies
 are like mirrors that can reveal what is upon our hearts too. As we read on carefully this week and consider the final week of Jesus' life, may we enter into the experience and emerge changed.
Please read along slowly this week. You can read one Gospel for 2 days or read them as parallels according to the events:
Matthew 26-28
Mark 11-16
Luke 19v29 - 24
John 12v12- 21

note: as the Gospels were written to inspire faith, they do not include all the time-date details. This has caused some concern and many different scholars have endeavored to find the exact dates/times using the Jewish and Roman calendars. I do not personally think that knowing these details will make a real difference to our faith. It is important to be sure that Jesus was a historical figure and that we trust the accounts in the Bible as actual. Beyond that, we can choose tradition or scholarship to help us in our journey of faith, as long as it doesn't lead us into heresy! Personally, I find observing the Holy Week powerful for my faith experience; so I share some of my observations and reflections here. May it brighten your minds and strengthen your hearts!

For a simple background to the Holy Week: 
Lutheran Church on Holy Week

23 Mar 2015

To grief, mourn - for a stronger soul, and a gift of song

The way we grieve tells us more about who we truly are than all our acclamation. After all,
you mourn if you cherished
you cry if you feel loss
you sob silently for the broken heart is one that no longer holds it all together

This week will reveal our hearts, yea, our soul Singapore.

A visionary, sacrificial, bold architect of our little isle-state, one who is synonymous with our national journey is so many dimensions, has passed on.

We have been -
children who played
Teens who sulk
Adults who sweat and swear

But children, teens and adults all share one reality: we embody a soul. In times of grief, we cast off  our trappings and don the same apparel of mourning. We strip to basics and wear the cotton and linen and slop around in slippers, keeping vigil, losing sleep, living a different timetable and purpose.

Grief is our internal process, thoughts, feelings, the weight in the chest, the churning in the gut, the unspeakable thoughts and feelings. Mourning is crying, journaling, creating artwork, telling our story, speaking the unspeakable. Mourning makes it possible for us to touch, express and release our grief. {trans-formative power of grief}

This is why I urge all Singaporeans to find a way to mourn. I am glad that was the word the Prime Minister chose in his announcement. 

The late Mr Lee stirs us all up in different ways. Most of us are filled with an admixture of admiration, awe and angst. We are grateful for his grit, we may not be so thrilled with some of his iron-clad ways. This is because he is just human, like you and me. He is responding to his times, with his personality, training and convictions. We will never find anyone totally agreeable to us. What moves humanity along is a level-headed and full-hearted embracing of persons for who we are, recognising the difference we all make to each other.

What feelings are within you? It may be purple today and grey tomorrow.

Mourning is thus a deeply personal experience. But when we share a grief and a loss, it can be a collective experience too; one that calls us to go beneath the surface and reach out to one another. One that calls us to pause and consider, for

Loss is not just an ending; it marks the beginning of a new way of being.

This is not the time to scramble or fear. It is the time to remember, revisit and recast. 

This SG50 year, we had a song competition. I thought of our little nation and all that we have built: the infrastructure and functional values. On the Maslow's hierarchy, we have met our security needs. We are at the place where we seek the higher order needs of soul and spirit; the stuff of fulfilment. I am immensely gratified and proud of the many good Qs, initiatives and ideas that have poured forth. The late Mr Lee has helped us built a robust foundation for us to pursue these higher order matters. 

As we walk the next leg, let us take a leaf from other cultures and societies for this journey - observing what works and what backfires or even unravels. 

But it is time for dreaming again. 

Dreams do come true
We set our hearts
And pledged
to be
to prosper and progress

Miracle island
Shining in the world
An inspiration
That small things can
Make a difference

Look at us now
With our pioneers
Setting pace
We arise
To cherish and aspire

Our journey continues
A richer soul
Where each one is part
Of the greater whole
hearts are free
Every dream grows
as surely as the river flows

{lyrics: jenni ho-huan tune: dorothy yew for The Gift of Song, 2015}

And while you dream awhile, let these pictures stir you: is this what you dream of, or is it something else? Top 10 cities {Lonely Planet}