Although Steve is technically on break as the college is closed for the holiday season, the university is still going strong and the project doesn’t move forward unless Steve is there, so we have been staying close to home. However, this past weekend Steve had a work based commitment down in the south outside of Johor Bahru. Since it is a four to five hour drive we decided to make the trip count by spending the weekend there.
We stayed at the Pulia Springs Resort which is a little down at the heels but has some lovely architecture and is located on a gorgeous golf course. It was nice to walk in the quiet, coolness of the evening and spend some time with a book in hand enjoying the greenery and sound of the birds. Subang Jaya is noisy all the time and you forget how restful the quietness is.
On Saturday we drove about forty kilometers out to Ulu Tiram to connect with a potential partner for the university. Kampung Temasek, The School Of Doing, aims to provide experiences that allow people to experience the kampung days of their youth. The curriculum is geared at equipping future leaders “with the 5Cs of Courage, Curiosity, Creativity, Compassion and Collaboration,” as they explore nature and sustainable technologies. They have a great ten acre site, adjacent to the river Sungei Tiram. Groups are encouraged to go there to work with local facilitators and experiment on any sustainable project from gardening to renewable energy.
After a very nice home grown lunch and some stimulating conversation with Singaporean, Professor Tay Kheng Soon and members of the Buckminister Fuller Club, we headed out to the east coast for the afternoon. It being monsoon season the winds were high and the waves, pretty wild but we relaxed in a hammock, with our books on our laps and watched the waves crash on the shore.
We broke up our drive home on Sunday with a short side trip to the west coast town of Muar. Grabbed lunch at the Elephant Café and stocked up on a couple of kilograms of our favourite Malaysian Elephant coffee. Still beat the rush hour traffic and got home in time for Steve to set up a three time zone, Wise Boys, Red Alert 2 online game with Jon, Ben and Dave. Steve is not much for online games but when your grandson turns seven it is time to learn so you can play with him.
Happy Birthday, Ben
I read a blog posted by our dear friends Beth and Stephen Lauer, who serve the Lord in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. You can read the blog for yourself here: http://www.alifeoverseas.com/outlawed-grief-a-curse-disguised/ although I could easily summarize it for you if you like. It deals with the issue that all missionaries face: what to do with the fact that serving God in a foreign country means leaving behind all those whom you most love and care about. It also deals with the often airy dismissal by others of either “I could never do that; I love my family too much” (ie: you are a heartless jerk for going overseas) or “Well, God tells us to cast our burdens before Him” (ie: you are so unspiritual that you don’t know the fundamentals of the faith).
What should those of us who are so far away from our families do, especially at this most family oriented time of the year? Should we give way to grief and let our emotions out? Or should we rise above our emotions with heroic spirituality? Well here is what I think: Grief yes; despair no (which is why although I largely agree with the article, I disagree with the accompanying picture which seems more despairing than grieving). However, I do not think it is only those who feel called to serve the Lord in far off places that are told that their emotions are unchristian. It seems to me that we live in an anaesthetized world where ALL emotions are drowned in booze-sex-tv-iPads-entertainment-sports-drugs and EVERYONE is reluctant to face what they are truly feeling. I think Christians in the West simply adopt their culture’s approach to emotions and back-date their theology to fit in.
This attitude has far more in common with Stoicism than Christianity. Jesus wept, for heaven’s sake. Paul grieved for the care of his churches. Christianity encompasses all things human. It doesn’t discard or ignore emotions, else why did Christ put on a human body? Pam and I talk a lot about what we are giving up (family, mostly) to be here. I think it is both necessary and healthy. The Lord advises us to reckon on the cost (Luke 14:28) before undertaking a major endeavour. Prior to coming here in 2007 we discussed leaving Canada for 20 years, and always thought the cost too high; not for us, but for our children who not only had difficulty adjusting to our year in Germany, but even greater difficulty adjusting to life back in Canada. It was always our understanding that our children were given to us by God as our primary responsibility, and if serving God meant neglecting that, than we must not have understood the Lord correctly. We waited until they had all graduated from college/university before coming here. Not every missionary comes to the same conclusion, and it is certainly not our intention to criticize the decisions of others taken in faith and good conscience. But that was ours.
Now that we are here we still count the cost of our being here on our family. We reckon on it regularly, which may have something to do with the fact that although we grieve, we never despair. Our Lord is in this and He knows our hearts and our limits. He will not try us above what we can bear. That said, if any of our children needed us home, we would be there in a holy minute; I think they know that about us. Nothing is more important to us than our children. We do not place them above God, but we see our ministry to them as God given. We pray for them constantly, and ask God to bless and uphold them and our dear grandchildren. We do not have to live in their backyards to see the Lord working in their lives; our faith in God is greater than that.
Grief is the Lord’s way of putting us in touch with what is important to us; of allowing us to reflect and appreciate the contribution of another to our life’s journey, and express our love for them and our longing to be with them once again. For those who have died, it is a testimony – not given in vain by a sadistic evolutionary quirk, but given in hope by a loving almighty God – that we will see them again in glory. This is the Christian’s unique heritage; the assurance of an incarnate God who left the Father’s side to minister to our eternal need. If we are truly His, should we not be willing to do the same? And like Christ, should we not also express our deep longing and love for others?
It is no secret that the Bible has some of the best stories in all of literature, and none so compelling as the story of Christmas. Forget the religious implications for a minute and just revel in the narrative. God looking down on the world He had created in love gone so far astray that even the people He had chosen out of all the peoples on the earth had begun to forget His name, and even His purpose. They had lost a kingdom that under Solomon had extended its influence to Egypt and Persia, through Arabia and Syria. Its writings and teachings so full of wisdom and sound good sense that they would influence all the world’s religions. Now they were reduced to a mere outpost of the most powerful empire the world had ever known, an empire that ruled not in wisdom and justice, but by the exercise of ruthless power.
Into this world, so troubled and torn, God Himself appeared in human form, not as a ruler to contest earthly power, but as a child of neither wealth nor power, born to a woman betrothed, but not yet wed to a man that was not the father of her child. Can you imagine a situation less promising? Yet from this Child arose the greatest moral teaching the world has ever heard. In His name great enterprises were established, scientific discoveries made, schools and hospitals were built, humanitarian aid flowed to the needy, slavery was abolished, not only in the Roman Empire scarcely two hundred years after Christians were accepted as Roman citizens, but again in the West after it had been reintroduced by Arab slavers.
In His name missionaries went out, not armed with swords and spears, but with knowledge and compassion, seeking to temper the worst excesses of mankind and bring healing and hope where there was poverty and despair. Just imagine what would have happened in India if Gandhi weren’t so taken with the teachings of Christ, or Black America if it wasn’t guided by the godly Rev. Martin Luther King, or South Africa if Mandela hadn’t been ruled by the Spirit of God, but the spirit of vengeance. If Christ hadn’t entered the world, what hope would there be in the world?
For this reason Christians everywhere celebrate the goodness of God in entering human history, not to judge, but to offer freedom from the oppression of wicked men. Wicked men like Herod, threatened by the arrival of Christ, sought to kill Him as a child. Men equally wicked still seek to kill Him, or at least remove Him from public love and consideration. To those we say ‘Merry Christmas,’ and offer to you the same advice that Gamaliel gave to the Sanhedrin (Acts 5) when Peter and John were hauled before them, “Keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan [the spread of Christianity] or this work [telling others the good news] is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it.”
The teachings of Christ have not changed, but our understanding of them continues to mature and grow as new cultures and communities interact with its truths and reveal new insights. Christianity’s explosive growth in South America, Africa and Asia has deepened our understanding of the universality of its message. The faith has weathered the devastating wars of atheistic socialism, the upheavals of the sexual revolution and the destructive effects of unrestrained capitalist greed, and it has only become deeper and broader with each challenge. This little child born in Bethlehem packed an enormous punch. Isn’t it time you considered His claims to deity more seriously?
Steve: Thanks for joining me for lunch
Murthi: Let me pay this time
Steve: Sure; you’re such a rich guy, right. How’s the family? Siti wasn’t feeling well the last we spoke.
Murthi: Good. She’s fine. Pam?
Steve: Well it is a little tough for her at this time of year. Christmas is a time for family, you know
Murthi: Will you be going to church?
Steve: We always do. Why, do you want to come?
Murthi: We have our own Festival of Light, you know.
Steve: I do know. I love the little coloured rice things in the mall when Deepavali comes around.
Murthi: It is the celebration of good over evil
Steve: But it is just story, right? You don’t actually think it took place, do you?
Murthi: It is story, but it is story that tells a deeper truth. Much of Hinduism is like that
Steve: C’mon Murthi, you have a Master’s degree. Doesn’t the rational side of you want some historical fact to back up what you believe?
Murthi: Doesn’t all belief come down to a leap of faith? Isn’t that what your faith teaches you as well?
Steve: There is a lot of truth to that. There comes a time when you have to make a decision based on what you already know. We will never know everything about anything, so to that extent a leap of faith is necessary. But for rational beings there has to be reason as well as belief, otherwise it is just nice stories we tell ourselves
Murthi: Your faith is full of stories as much as mine is
Steve: But in my faith there are historical markers that can be verified in history. There was a Roman Empire, there was an Emperor called Augustus, there was a governor of Judea called Pontius Pilate, they did use crucifixion to execute political prisoners in order to subdue revolt; these are historical facts that can be verified by Roman history. There was no historical event where some giant threw handfuls of rocks that became the islands leading out to Sri Lanka so he could pursue his enemy. You don’t believe that any more than I do.
Murthi: And Christ fed five thousand people with just a loaf of bread?
Steve: Ah, now you are confusing reason with scientific reductionism.
Murthi: No, I am saying you cannot feed five thousand people with one loaf of bread.
Steve: Several loaves and a couple of fish, according to records. But yes, logically that is impossible. But logic and reason are not necessarily the same thing. Logic would tell you that according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics all closed systems move towards entropy: things wind down. Yet as we look around the world we see that this has clearly not been the case on earth. Systems have become more coherent, not less so. Clearly there are other dynamic forces at work. The same is true with the feeding of the five thousand. Logic would tell you that this is impossible. But reason would instruct us that there are other forces at work; in this case the presence of the One who made all matter in the first place. This event demonstrates His claim to be that Creator: able to make matter out of nothing.
Murthi: To my mind, just a story.
Steve: Then why were the people so impressed, if He had just told them a story? Why were they so insistent that He declare Himself to be King?
Murthi: They weren’t. That is just part of the story as well.
Steve: I suppose that line of reasoning holds for the crucifixion as well?
Murthi: People do not come back from the dead; not if they are truly dead. Therefore if Christ appeared again it follows that he was not truly dead in the first place
Steve: And therefore just a story.
Murthi: Just a story, like Lord Rama pursuing Ravana to Sri Lanka
Steve: Ok then explain this rationally: You take 11 guys with no formal education but well steeped in the school of hard knocks, subject them to some of the most rigorous theological training the world has ever heard and then get them to witness a total sham where some guy who up until now has never told you anything except the absolute truth, even when it was hard for you to hear, and now fakes his own death in one of the biggest frauds in history and on the basis of that you go out and devote the rest of your life through hardship, toil, floggings and death to spread his message? Have you any idea how illogical that sounds?
Murthi: I admit that is a stretch.
Steve: Peter, when he was arrested and condemned to be crucified ask to be hung upside down because he didn’t consider himself worthy of dying the same way that Christ did. He did that knowing that Christ faked his own death? The followers of Christ, many of who were alive at His death and witnessed His resurrection suffered the loss of all that they had, including their lives, and not one of them said, “Why am I doing this? The man was a fraud.”?
Murthi: Ok, you made your point.
Steve: And here is the point. No human has ever come back from the dead, just like no human has ever walked on water, or given sight to the blind, or cured leprosy with a touch, or fed five thousand people with a few loaves of bread. These things were not done in the remote reaches of unrecorded history, but took place in one of the mightiest empires the world has ever known in one of the most educated parts of that empire. People were circulating written portions of the gospel story within months of the events they record. We have thousands of written historical documents that record the same events. They were systematized and codified into books within a decade or two. Peter writes about these records and calls them scripture in his own letters as an older man and we know he was crucified in AD 64, barely thirty years after Christ died.
Murthi: Look Steve, I don’t want to argue with you
Steve: I don’t want to argue with you either, Murthi. But I do want to contest the view that everything that counts in this world can be counted. Some things are not subject to the laws of physics. My emotions aren’t, and even my thoughts aren’t. Why is it that I can dream a future for myself – a future where I spend the last part of my career teaching in a foreign land and even taking my Master’s when I am 65 – and by effort, by strength of will make that a reality? And I am just a human being. Why can’t God – however you conceive him to be – by the force of His will bring into being whatever He decides in his sovereign will to do? Once you accept the idea that there is a God, then why limit Him to just the things that any human could do? How would that be a witness of His God-ness?
Murthi: But why would God – who presumably made the laws of physics in the first place – want to violate those laws?
Steve: I can think of three reasons why. The first would be to declare that He is sovereign over those laws: He made the laws, the laws didn’t make Him, which is what you would get if God couldn’t overrule the laws of physics. Secondly, to demonstrate that there were larger truths than the laws of physics. People in the past used to know this a lot better than we know it now. There is no law that binds us together as friends. There is no law that makes you love your wife or your children. Some things exist outside of physical laws. All the really great truths of life lie outside empirical truth, not within it. Perhaps God ‘violating’ the laws of physics is just a way of alerting us to larger truths. Then finally what I just said earlier: if God didn’t overrule physical laws, how would he have witnessed that he was God? As Paul says in his letters, “If Christ is not raised form the dead then our faith is useless” (1Cor. 15:14); it is no more than just another set of moral principles
Murthi: Moral principles are all we have
Steve: If moral principles are all we have, my friend, then we are of all people to be most pitied. For it is a wicked world out there, ruled by wicked people who enjoy doing wicked things and rejoice that there are moral people like you and me to do them to because that makes their wickedness a whole lot easier to get away with. If we all carried guns and were prepared to shoot anyone who took advantage of us in the slightest, it would harder for wicked people to rule.
Murthi: It would be hard for anyone to rule
Steve: That’s my point. The wicked rule because moral men allow them to. Because to oppose them with them same force that gives them power would make us as wicked as them. That is why it is not enough to have moral principles to live by; there has to be a moral force in the universe opposing that wickedness, or we are all lost.
Murthi: There is a moral force; that moral force we call karma
Steve: You can call it karma if you like. But what you can’t do in my view is say that this is an impersonal force. To the Christian, the moral law is the expression of a personal God who has set the rules for mankind to follow and has every intention of having mankind adhere to those rules
Murthi: Which none of them ever do.
Steve: Which none of us ever do; which is why we need a Saviour. Look, I do not deny that there are good moral teachings in your faith tradition, or in Buddhism. There is even some moral teaching in the Koran, although it is pretty thin on the ground, if you ask me. But good moral teaching will not get you into the next world any more than it will get you through this one. If all moral teaching comes from God, and He is the Author of it, as Christians believe, and not subject to it, then that makes Him greater and more holy than the holiest moral law. Why would that God, infinite in holiness, want me – a good moral man and yet still crawling with sin and moral error – in His presence? Wouldn’t He be defiled just by my being there? This is the great conundrum of every faith, and only Christianity has an answer to this riddle. Christianity says that Christ paid the price for my moral error, and His sacrifice washes away my impurities. I take on the nature of Christ in some way that even I can’t fully understand, so that when God looks at me He sees the holy, risen Christ who died for me. Isn’t that a truth that the world is longing to hear?
Murthi: Let me pay this time
Steve: You can pay for my lunch, but you cannot pay for my sins, my friend. Only Christ can do that. And just for the record, He can pay for yours as well.
I had a very nice letter from a student who is overseas studying for a degree and is delighted to be fulfilling a childhood dream. But she wonders if wanting something badly enough that you risk your heart being broken is worth the dreaming in the first place. This is my response:
When I was young I had a dream. Oddly enough, for one so young, my dream was about getting married. The woman I married would be my equal in every way: equal in determination, equal in vision, equal in ability, equal in intelligence, equal in compassion. We would raise our children to see the world without race or gender barriers. We would understand that character was more important than wealth, and we would provide a launching pad for our children to explore the world and find happiness in it. Every woman I met I compared against this dream. I would not settle for anything less than that, but neither would I fail to investigate every possibility. I waited 15 years until I met the woman who came the closest to all I had envisioned. I pursued her for a year until she agreed to marry me. We raised three children who are all that we envisioned they would be.
Once we married and had three children, I became captured by another dream. This dream was to go for the Lord to those who were not as fortunate as we were in the West and to see if the Lord would have us serve him there. In 1986 we went to Bangladesh, and served the Lord for year. But He reminded me that my previous dream was as yet unfulfilled, and asked me to postpone this new dream until it was complete. When we returned we conceived another dream that would unite the dreams we had for our children with the dreams we had to serve the Lord. We would see our children through their education until they were safely launched on their lives, and then we would go back to Asia. We nurtured that dream for 20 years, taking short and longer missionary assignments to keep the dream alive. In 2007 when the last of our children had graduated, we came to Malaysia to serve the Lord here.
Now I have another dream: to complete both my Master’s and Doctorate and serve the Lord through development, both in teaching and in directing development projects. Like all dreams, this will change as it takes on reality, but I have no doubt that it is God who has given me this dream – just as He gave me the previous dreams – so that He could bring about His work in me. In short, my dear, dreams – good dreams – are from God. We should not be surprised at this as He says in His word “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not for harm, to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). Do not be afraid to dream godly dreams. My whole life has been the fulfillment of the dreams that the Lord gave to me. Have a Blessed Christmas!
To all who dream, I give the same advice. But I would also add this caveat: Dreams may motivate and empower to you to achieve more than you thought you could, but dreams require hard work and dedication. Christ had a ‘dream,’ if you will forgive the metaphor. His dream was to liberate all those who are oppressed by the evil in this world and make a way for them to enter into the presence of an unutterably holy God in an eternity of happiness. For this reason He entered the world some two thousand years ago. Look at the cost He paid to make this ‘dream’ come true. This was no idle, pleasant fantasy; He literally had to sweat blood to make it a reality. Reckon on the cost of your dreams before you make them the focus of your life. Then submit them to God, for He is the Author of all godly dreams.