Tuesday, November 15, 2016

人之初, 性本善

Their Stories = Our Stories = My Stories

Years ago at the University of Chicago campus, one of my classmates asked me some origin of the oriental culture/tradition.  I quoted him the following brief statement in Chinese:

人之初, 性本善. 性相近; 習相遠.

The following week he gave me his insightful translation:

In the beginning, sex was good.
Sex kept people together; practice set people apart.

It is very hard for us to understand the words of God through the original Hebrew, Greek, Latin and/or some popular modern languages such as English, Chinese or German. 

The good news is that the Bible is full of stories that we can relate to.  In order to better understand the stories of there and then, we would have to take their stories as our stories, or rather my stories of here and now.

Text I:

 1Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
2Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
3Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
6Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:1-7 NIV)

If I were Abraham, or Issac for that matter, what would I do?
Would we think twice before we sign the covenant with God?

Text 2:
18This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about : His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 
 19Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:18-21 NIV)

Again, if I were Joseph, or Mary for that matter, what would I do?  Forget about the marriage, maybe?

Just like our faith and lives, challenges of the stories of the Bible go on and on...  

In the beginning God… At end God will still be.

For the meantime, let’s transform their stories into ours, into mine.

And open our hearts and eyes to see what we are actually becoming.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Preaching the Stories, the Justice and the Good News

1.    The Stories

The bible is full of the stories which were told thousands years ago and thousand and thousand of miles away from either our home land Taiwan or our current residence in the United States. They remain as stories until we view them as our stories. Those stories are our stories. Then the light shines through our hearts and minds and the impact is within us, right here and now.

When the prophet Nathan went to see King David and told him a story of a very rich man who took a poor man’s one and only loving lamb, roasted and served to his guest, David was furious over the rich guy (2 Samuel 12: 1-5).  It was, to David, just a story, one of their stories.  Until David was aware that it was exactly his own story, it did not do a thing to him. 

And then Jesus told a parable (story) that there were two men went to the Temple to pray.  One was a proud Pharisee and the other was a corrupt tax collector (Luke 18: 10-14). When both left, one was more blessed than the other.
Guess who he was. and then guess who we are.

Then that famous story begins with “A man had two sons…” (Luke 15; 11-32) One could easily identify himself as either good old home bound brother; the lost/dead and came back to life bad boy…or even as the waiting father/mother.

The identities and the possibilities of the stories are unlimited.

Just like the grace of the Lord, unlimited!

2.    The Justice

Confession 1 -- I ask more questions than providing answers.
Confession 2 -- Since I completed my formal theological training in the late 70’s I do not recall that I ever preach a sermon about the justice of God. 

The justice is there yet I could not comprehend enough to put it into my sermons.  It is still hurting when I preach the love of God to His people (us) who more often turn our back to Him.  Yet it is more than I could handle when I try to touch upon the subject of the justice of the Lord.

Take the following scriptures for example –

At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. (Exodus 12: 29-30 NRSV)

Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ” (1 Samuel 15: 1-3 NRSV)

     Why would the first born, the women, child and infant
     (Egyptians, Amalekites or whoever) be included 
     during the “war of revenge”? 
     Was it a divine justice or the human justice?   

3.    The Good News
Last winter I got a bad cold from a red-eye flight over the US continent and lost just about all my voice a few days before my scheduled sermon at a church.  While visiting my doctor, she advised me that I should not preach that coming Sunday, “Once you open your mouth, there will be no good news but germs…”
She said seriously. I opened my mouth and closed immediately without making a single comment.

As a preacher of the Presbyterian Church I used to utilize the role of the “teaching elder” more than proclaim the good news in my sermons.  Then I remembered the TV commercial called “where is the beef?” and I remembered that the congregations tend to looking for the good news over the theological/biblical interpretation knowledge.

In the parable of weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30) Jesus used the power of the mercy over the punishment and allow weeds like us to be in His grace and survived surprisingly.   

Take a look of the entire biblical characters, do we see any pure good wheat at all?  From Adam/Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David…all is as weed-looking as we are.  Yet God used them just like He would use us if we let Him.

The good news is in the weeds as well as in the wheat. 

We cannot exclude those who are not like us. 

And vice versa.

     “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1)

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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Psalm 23

1The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

A Shepherd would give His life for me whenever necessary. Who and what else would I ever need or ask for?

2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside quiet waters.

He did not lead me to a five-star luxury resort hotel like my dream vacation; but to a quiet place where all my basic needs are near by.

3He refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.

While those who ever walked on the right paths suffered more than others, for His name sake, the world expanded with the better view of love and life.

4Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Here comes the heart of this psalm: the leaping relationship from I - He to I –Thou.  And in stead of removing the darkest valley out of our life, as we’d wish, the Shepherd is staying with us and comforts us when we are most desperate and lonely.

5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

The Shepherd recognizes and reassures me that I am his child and keeps me calm even and especially when I face the worst enemy of my life. The shepherd anoints me as if I am worthwhile.

6Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.(NIV)

This is the state of Heaven: Nothing to do with the gold mansions and the pearls streets as elsewhere described; but being with you - our Shepherd/Father - in Your goodness and love… forever.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Preaching 101 準備 講道

·       Find a scripture (text) that would fit into our contemporary life (context)

·       Get a story or two (as genuine as possible) that would illustrate your point clearly and simply

·       Set your sermon within the length of 20-25 minutes (few would endure a lengthy sermon)

·       Inside your mind, when ready, you preach to yourself – and choose only those which have touched your own heart; throw away those you could care less

·       It is okay to be nervous – even the most well known preachers get nervous often

·       Remember you are there to deliver a message from the Bible - from the Lord - so you are one of the listeners as well   

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Gone Fishing

Peter looked at Mary who was physically shaken.
“What happened, Mary?” He asked.

Don’t tell me it is about Jesus again.

Not a word. Mary was too frightened to say a word.
Peter thought for a moment then said, “Well, I am gone, fishing!” So he went with a few others.                                      
Just like his first encounter with Jesus the Nazareth, Peter, a professional fisherman, did not fish too well again. There was so much in his mind that he could not concentrate.
His hands were shaken, more so was his mind.

What happened to me in the last three years or so? Peter thought.
Was it just a dream or rather a nightmare?

·      I was with my brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, and there He was, a son of a carpenter, no less. “I’ll make you fishers of men,” He said with some authority.  And funny that we believed Him and we left everything behind and followed Him…

·      We saw Him performed all those miracles helping the sick and the poor; fed a few thousands people by the hill with few loafs of bread and fish; and His hands even touched the Gentiles, Huh!?

·      And when He spoke, most of the time, most of us, especially myself, could not quite understand.

·      And then I was having a time of my life when three of us went up to the mountain and saw Elijah with Moses and Jesus were chatting and shinning! And we could not even stay overnight there!?

·      And one time I opened my big mouth saying that He was Christ, the son of God… I meant that He would help us building up the glorious kingdom just like King David once had, but…

·      And another great experience that I had with Jesus, that I was walking on the water and clearly see a few fish swimming under my feet, even just for a few steps, mine O mine!

·      And then all things went down the hill once Jesus was arrested and… and I was… and I denied that I even knew Him, not just once but three times!

·      And soon He was crucified, died and buried that same day – the worst day of my life ever – all my dreams and hopes were broken and gone.

·      Then someone said Jesus was back again! What!?

·      For sure that I’d better got myself together to do the only thing I could handle – fishing.

Peter and a few others went fishing and worked all night but caught nothing. And then they saw Jesus at the shore yet they could not recognize Him. 

Children, have you got any luck?” He said like a tender whisper.

And right then they caught so many fish with His help and then they opened their eyes and recognized Him. And they were speechless.

After a rather quiet breakfast, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me more than anything else?”
What kind of question is that? And why it is always me?
“You know that I do love you,” Peter whispered.
Feed my lambs,” said Jesus.

“Do you really love me, Simon?” Jesus asked again.
Oh no, not again, not me…
“I do…” Peter could not even hear his own voice.
“Then take care of my sheep,” said Jesus.

“Do you still love me, Simon?” For the third time Jesus asked.
Always the third time…always.
“You know all about me, Lord!” Peter answered in tears.
“Feed my sheep!”

And that was all Peter ever needed.  Simon Peter’s life goal was finally set… He never looked back, ever!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Seeing in a Mirror Dimly

  • Then he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it, and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome; henceforth neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” So the water has been wholesome to this day, according to the word which Elisha spoke. He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and thence he returned to Samaria. (2 Kings 2:21-25 RSV)
  • For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. (1 Cor.13:12 RSV)

Throughout my adult life, I have often had more questions than answers to life in general and to the Bible in particular.

Many years ago, I was invited to a joint-church-summer-retreat somewhere in North America while the keynote speaker took care of the adult sessions and I was responsible for the younger generations.   A high school junior student asked me during a break that if I got all the answers of the Bible as that keynote speaker claimed.  My answer was, “No. The truth is that I am still looking for the answers!”
I was scared of those who had all the answers of the Bible then.  I still am.

Today’s Old Testament text is one of the few examples that my answers are nowhere to be found.  

How could the prophet Elisha curse and kill those 42 boys in the name of the Lord, just because they joked about his baldness?  Especially right after Elisha did some good stuff (also in the name of the Lord) for the nearby village. (see 2 Kings 2:21-22)

Remember the famous quote by Lord Acton? 
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…”   
No, this is just a good quote, not the answer to that question.

A man died and was glad to enter the heaven.  He was amazed to see that there were so many castle-like buildings around the main entrance of the heaven. 

“What are those buildings for?” the man asked.
The angel answered, “These people in the buildings believed that they were the only ones saved and are now here in heaven.  You see, they always believed that while they were on earth.  They were all kinds: Catholics, Protestantism, Pentecostalism, Non-denominational… you name them, we’ve got them all.”
“Hmm... How about those who are wandering on the streets here?”

The angel smiled and whispered, “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matt. 25:35-36)

I love Paul for his honesty when he wrote:
"For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.
Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood."  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Journey Has Just Begun

When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them.  A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough.  When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened.  But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.”  Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading. John 6: 16-21 (NIV)

On this beautiful Christmas Sunday morning, December 22, 2013, shortly after he received the baptism from the pastor, Mr. Chang walked up to the podium, referred his recent spiritual journey to the story of Jesus’ disciples: how they turned from the fear into the joy of being with their master and finally reached their destiny. 

“All our dreams are a little different,” he said softly, “but essentially and ultimately they are the same…” 

He also pointed out that without the help of his several friends in the last ten years he would not have been there sharing his story with the crowded congregation.

Throughout the span of that ten years, there were these  people who directly or indirectly affected Mr. Chang's decision making.  What behind the process, I believe, has been the moving touches of the Holy Spirit.

Mr. Chang has been a giant both in public offices and the business world.   During his adult life, before and after his retirement, he always keeps his sincere smiles and humble attitude toward the people he ever comes to contact. 

His helping hands seem to be everywhere and his kind heart can be felt across the Pacific Ocean. 

Mr. Chang has his way of sharing: always touching.  A day before his baptism, he gave me a book The Gift of Peace - a personal reflections by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.  The book was translated into Chinese "平安"  by S. N. Lin, MD.  I gladly accepted it and told him that I happened to know the Cardinal while I was in Chicago for more than 30 years. The Cardinal was like a loving father to the entire city of Chicago. 

A journey has just begun. 

Whether the steps are giant or small, it’s a journey of peace, grace and joy. 

And like those disciples in the boat, nobody would ever have to sail/walk alone.

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