Lone Ranger Christian?

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Q. My friend told me he does not read reference books in Bible study, saying there are so many different interpretations and opinions that it’s confusing. All he needs is “me and my Bible”. He said, “If you believe everything the books say, you might as well do without books (盡信書不如無書).” He also does not trust leaders in his church, nor well-known pastors. How can I steer him back?

A. While there are many opinions, there are sound rules of hermeneutics by which you can evaluate whether a particular interpretation is valid or not. It is not free for all and everything and anything goes. Your friend has a very high view of himself and a very low view of learning from others. But the fact of the matter is that most things we know we learned from others, our parents, elementary and high school teachers, bosses, books, media etc., even though your friend does not acknowledge them. We always stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, and passed on the lessons they learned through their words and writings.

The Christian life is never meant to be lived in isolation, but in community. To say that one does not need the wisdom of the church in history, the exhortation of fellow believers, the edification of leaders is to be very arrogant and naive about one’s dependence on the body of Christ.

1 Co 12:21-26 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
• Eph 4:11-16 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
• Heb 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

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There are dozens of “one another” verses in the epistles about how we should relate to each other. For you friend to say “just me and my Bible” sounds pious, but in fact goes against what the Bible taught. There is no place for playing “lone ranger”.

Church Mess (2 of 2)

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(Continued from yesterday)

There are 4 parties in the story, each with actions that are not handled properly:
1. Pastor A who accused his associate in public.
2. Pastor B who was accused, which accusations may be true or false.
3. Church members who reacted negatively to A at the members’ meeting and wrote a joint letter to the board demanding that A be disciplined.
4. The board who took no action when the accusations first erupted and wrote a letter to all members requiring them to cease all forms of communication, private or public.

Taking things at face value, i.e. everything is accurately reported, my principles and gut reaction are:

• Deal with public matters publicly, private matters privately. I don’t know whether they had private discussions prior to the public outburst, and whether they are at the same job level or not, but A should have approached B in private to resolve the grievances first. If there is no resolution, then bring it to B’s supervisor or the board. Only when there is still no satisfactory resolution then it’s up to the board to take the matter to a members’ meeting, not A. This is standard Mt 18 procedure regarding conflicts between members or staff.

• A is handling things immaturely. In general we can tolerate a pastor’s poor performance due to inexperience, bad behavior (up to a point) due to immaturity, but usually sever employment when his integrity is compromised, whether it is morals (infidelity), money (embezzlement), or when he drifts into heresy. Here A has not gone so far to warrant dismissal, but needs disciplinary action so that he can repent and be restored, and the congregation to learn grace rather than legalism.

• The board does not have the authority by virtue of their position to require members to cease private communication. They can appeal, but cannot demand. They have also lost their moral authority when they stalled and did not deal with the issue as it happened. A healthy board should be aware of the dynamics between its staff, and keep their eyes/ears open as to what’s happening among the members. This board seems very reactive and dysfunctional.

• Since events have already degenerated, the board should:
o investigate the allegations and discipline A for his outbursts and immaturity,
o discipline B if the allegations were true,
o call a members’ meeting to inform the congregation the facts as appropriate; educate them what is the biblical way to handle such matters, and exhort to deal with grace rather than law.
o come up with a plan to prevent similar grievances from recurring, and recast the vision what the mission of the church is, to refocus everyone’s attention to God’s purpose for the church, not on the disunity that obstructs the church’s progress

Depending on whether there are particular church members or board members who are stirring up trouble instead of solving the problem, they may need a private admonition apart from the public address. Persistent antagonists should step down from leadership if they are causing the church to regress instead of progress. Public apologies from A, B, member ringleaders, the board may be needed as appropriate to move the church forward.

There are other issues e.g. salary disparity, but we just don’t have enough details as to the scope of each pastor’s responsibility, years of experience etc. to determine whether the difference is justified.

That’s my humble opinion without deeper probing. Hope that helps.

Church Mess (1 of 2)

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My brother sent me an article for my comments. It goes like this:

Recently, a problem arose in a Chinese church in Southern California that needs deep reflection and careful handling. A pastor accused a fellow pastor in Sunday School and even in a business meeting of members of coming to work late and leaving early, and improper use of funds. He also said he knew his salary is lower, which is grossly unfair. Some members reacted immediately by questioning the propriety of his accusations, leading to chaos.

Afterwards some members wrote a joint letter to the Board, demanding that they discipline the accusing pastor. The Board did not know what to do, so did nothing. After a few weeks, the attendance kept declining. The majority of those who remained felt they should tolerate the pastor, but others believed if that pastor stays, it will hinder the church’s progress and long-term development.

One thing led to another. The Board sent a letter to all church members, stating “The Church Board requires the constituents to immediately cease all forms of communications, private or public”. Some members find this letter offensive. (Two thousand years ago, Emperor Qin forbid criticizing state policies, with offenders to be beheaded.)

The incident is still developing. They hope to hear from readers suggested solutions, which could also be a reference for other churches in the future:

1. When should a pastor be tolerated? When should he be dismissed?
2. Does the Board have the authority to forbid members from expressing their opinion in private?
3. Under present circumstances, what can each party do to:
a. pacify the situation,
b. resolve division,
c. allow people to feel at ease to stay in church,
d. cooperate and develop the future?

(To be continued)

Reflections on “It’s a Wonderful Life”

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We attended the live-radio play “It’s a Wonderful Life” hosted by our church. It’s a classic Christmas movie (1946) about “an angel who helped a compassionate but despairingly frustrated businessman by showing him what life would have been like if he never existed.” (For those who do not know the storyline, please refer to http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038650/) The story held our attention and the performance was very good, but I left with mixed feelings about the plot.

On the one hand, I like the theme “No man is a failure who has friends. Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole. All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” Not many of us are wise according to human standards, not many mighty, not many noble (1 Co 1:26), but all of us have friends. What we have given away have left a mark, great or small, on their lives. Had we never existed, our friends’ lives would have been different by virtue of the fact that our impact would have been absent.

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wonderful life 2

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I thought back over the last few decades. A lot of the things I did would not amount to much. Whatever trophies or awards I earned in school or university had long been forgotten, as soon as the next school year came along and there were new students competing for those top spots. What achievements I had with my employers were a thing of the past too, as everyone’s attention quickly refocused on the latest quarterly and annual results. Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. (Eccle 1:2; 12:8)

However, if I had never been born, for sure I would not have any children or grandchildren! And they are important! Even though I had not done anything great according to the world’s standards, I shared the gospel with quite a few, and by God’s grace some did trust and follow the Lord. Many I did not have the opportunity to meet again, but I expect to see them again the other side of heaven. Had I not existed, I guess the Lord would have used others to lead them to Himself, but I’m glad I was there at the right time and place and obedient in carrying the message. To me that’s significant! So I’m thankful for the play’s reminder to reflect on what matters in life.

On the other hand, I am bothered by the play’s utilitarian value system. What if, unlike the story’s hero, I had not saved anyone life? Or contributed to society’s well-being by stopping evil oppressors in their tracks? What if I am just an ordinary citizen trying hard to make ends meet? Or perhaps I was born physically or mentally challenged? Does that mean my life has little value because I had not influenced others for the better? I don’t think so. Even with all the disadvantages and looked down by the world, I would still be fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139:14). I would still be made in God’s image, a child of God and precious in His sight.

So I have mixed feelings about the play. But I suppose that’s the best I can expect from humanitarian philosophy – good from today’s moral decline perspective, but far short of God’s ideal. That’s why we need to share the gospel to as many as we can as best as we can. Other things pale in comparison.

Accepting Refugees (2 of 2)

(Continued from yesterday)

4. God expects us to love refugees as ourselves. We are to treat them like our fellow countrymen. Positively, we are to leave part of our surplus for them. Negatively, we are not to wrong or oppress them:
Ex 22:21 You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (See also Ex 23:9)
• Lev 19:10 Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God. (See also Lev 23:22; Deut 24:19-21)
• Lev 19:33-34 When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. (See also Deut 14:28-29; 26:12)
• Lev 24:22 There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the LORD your God.
• Num 15:16 There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you.
• Deut 10:19 So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Treating refugees the same way you treat natives presupposes we take them in, otherwise how can there be one law for all.

But what about the danger of bringing in wolves under sheep’s clothing? The danger is always there, but that does not mean we close our hearts and stand by and do nothing. There were spies and assassins in biblical times (“spy” and “spies” each appear 16 times in the NASB), but that did not stop God from including the above commands in the Bible. Yes the government has a duty to keep citizens safe and secure. What it needs to do is to make sure its security measures screen out terrorist suspects before they enter the country, while admitting genuine refugees so they can make a fresh start and have an opportunity to hear the gospel in their new home.

Churches in particular need to do their part in resettling this new wave of “boat people“. Because I believe in the end Mt 25:40 applies, “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’”

Accepting Refugees (1 of 2)

Q. Our new prime minister wants to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees before year-end, and more later. Wouldn’t that jeopardize our national security in light of the terrorism in Paris? Shouldn’t the safety of the citizens be the primary concern?

A. This is a hot topic debated in political, social and religious circles. On the one hand, some see the plight of the refugees on national news and want to accept as many as possible on humanitarian grounds. On the other hand, some want to sound the alarm for fear of bringing in terrorists under the guise of refugees. What should the Christian stand be? While our feelings and government policy are important considerations, I believe the deciding criteria is what does the Bible say.

Although those who use the KJV claim that you don’t find the word “refugees” in the Bible, actually you do when you use newer versions like the NASB (5 times) or the NIV (2 times). Furthermore, you need to look up synonyms like “aliens” or “strangers”, which together present a more comprehensive picture.

Some, however, swing to the other extreme by including all aliens and strangers as “refugees”. Not every displaced person is a refugee, a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. Those who emigrate voluntarily in search of a better life are not refugees. And while most refugees are poor and helpless, not all poor and helpless are refugees. Now, what does the Bible say about how we should treat them?

There are at least four principles. The first three summarize how God deals with refugees, and the fourth what we should do on our part:
1. God loves refugees. He provides for them and protects them:
Deut 10:18 He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.
• Ps 146:9 The LORD protects the strangers; He supports the fatherless and the widow, …

2. God blesses those who care for refugees:
Deut 24:19-21 When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not go over it again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow.

3. He will judge and curse those who wrong refugees:
Deut 27:19 Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.’ …
• Mal 3:5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts.

(To be continued)

Recovering from Grief

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In pastoral care, while it is important to establish and maintain relationships through visitation under ordinary circumstances, it is crucial to have presence during times of change in the members’ lives. And while it is excusable to be absent from a happy event such as weddings or birthdays, it is critical that the pastor be available in times of sadness or distress.

The top five most stressful life events according to the Holmes and Rahe scale (also called the Social Readjustment Rating Scale “SRRS”) are:

1. Death of a spouse: 100
2. Divorce: 73
3. Marital separation: 65
4. Imprisonment: 63, and
5. Death of a close family member: 63.

Each measures over 60 on a scale of 1-100, 100 being most stressful. Except perhaps for (4) which the average pastor seldom encounters, the other four are quite common among church members’ extended families. Pastors have some seminary training in counseling, but unless they specialize in it, usually do not have a lot of expertise besides the Bible in dealing with such issues. One useful tool is the Grief Cycle proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who breaks down the grief process into five stages (“DABDA”):

1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance

The model is applicable to various grief situations e.g. crippling disease, job loss etc., not just bereavement.

Stage 1 is denial, a common defense mechanism to protect oneself from the shock of the bad news. “This can’t be happening to me. It’s not true.”

As reality sets in, the denial changes to anger. Sometimes the “patient” is angry with the dying or deceased loved one who “caused” the pain. Sometimes the anger is directed towards family, friends or strangers who triggered the emotional outburst; sometimes even God. “That’s not fair! I don’t deserve this. You left me!”

To cope with the loss, often an individual will bargain with God, or the person he/she is breaking up with, to salvage the situation. Sometimes the negotiation is only internal. “If only I had been a better person. If only I had treated her better.”

With the realization of the inevitable, the bargaining gives way to depression and despair. The person feels hopeless and helpless, and loses interest in usual activities and isolates himself from others, as everything is pointless. “What’s the use?”

With the passage of time and the support of family and friends, the person finally accepts the loss and the fact that life goes on but will not be the same as before. He/she lets go of the past and faces the future positively, adapting new activities, making new friends and regains hope.

Every person is unique and may not go through all the stages, not always in this sequence but often are. The duration of each stage is also different. The best we can do as friends, or brothers and sisters, or pastors is to be aware of what the grieving person is going through, lend a listening ear or shoulder to cry on, and offer words of encouragement or whatever practical help we can.

We can’t “solve” their griefs, but we can pray with them, because God can. The key to recovery is to turn their thoughts away from themselves and self-pity, and to focus on God the source of all strength and comfort. It helps if they can divert their attention to others, because in helping others they help themselves. Always lead him/her back to God, because He cares, and He comforts in ways we can’t.

Six Degrees of Separation

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It’s a small world after all. Three years ago we went on a leadership course, and met a Vancouver couple (A&B)* whose work is missionary care within a denominational mission agency. We kept in touch, and recently when they came to Toronto to conduct a training workshop we had breakfast together to catch up. It turned out we had more things in common than we realized.

The first connection was when Ellen started learning Spanish two years ago and looked for a tutor. My brother’s wife said her brother has a niece from Guatemala who is visiting him in Toronto. She speaks Spanish fluently and could give Ellen some pointers. We met, and it “happened” that this niece is a Christian who attends the church where A&B used to pastor in Guatemala City! That’s four steps from us to them, had we not known each other directly.

The second link was through one of our engineering classmates C in university. C and his wife D have two children. Their younger son E initially also studied engineering, but did not enjoy it. Interestingly, he went on a short-term mission to, of all places, Guatemala City, where he met A&B. C&D were concerned about E’s safety, and wrote A&B to look after him. E liked missions so much that he returned to Canada to attend bible college, and after graduation moved his family to Guatemala to start a bed and breakfast place for ministry. C&D visited them to show support and became friends with A&B too. That’s three steps from us to our missionary friends.

The last connection was through Ellen’s sister’s (F) husband (G). F&G went on a reunion with his extended family to Hawaii. However, in the middle of the celebrations G’s brother’s (H) wife (J) was struck with meningitis, and had to fly back to Calgary for treatment. H&J are dedicated members within their denomination, and active in promoting missions in Chinese churches. That’s where they got to work with A&B. When J recovered sufficiently, H threw a thanksgiving dinner and invited all their friends and church brothers and sisters, including A&B. That is again three steps from us to A&B.

My first thought was it’s a small world after all! True, our sample may be skewed by the fact that we are Chinese Christians involved in missions, but still you can’t help but wonder our circles are so limited and intersect with each other. Don’t do anything foolish, or else it will spread to who knows where, even without email, FB or WhatsApp!

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The second thing that comes to mind is “six degrees of separation“, the theory that everyone everywhere can be connected to any other person by way of friend introducing friend, in six steps or less. Our example took only 3 or 4 steps, but even if it were a complete stranger in a foreign land, the theory is that you can be connected to him/her in a maximum of six steps.

Mathematically this seems possible. In a random network of n nodes, with each node having k acquaintances, the average distance between two nodes is ln n/ln k (ln = natural logarithm). Assuming the world’s population to be 7 billion people (n), and that each person knows an average of 50 people (k), then the average number of steps to link one person to any other person is:
ln 7,000,000,000/ln 50 = 22.67/3.91 = 5.79, rounded to 6.
Obviously, the larger k is, the lesser the number of steps.
If you solve for k in ln 7,000,000,000/ln k = 6, the largest integral value for k is 44. In other words, if each person connect with at least 44 acquaintances, then anyone can be introduced to anyone else in a maximum of 6 steps.

This has interesting implications for evangelism and missions. We tend to think of reaching the world for Christ as “too big” a task and would require a very long time. But let’s assume the message to be delivered is the gospel. If I find the right contacts with the right connections, then I can share the good news with anyone in the world, including the top Muslim cleric, or the Dalai Lama, within six links. This assumes that those who received the message are ready and willing to pass it on, and that some will have to cross geographic, linguistic, cultural and/or class barriers. But what this tells us is that it is not an impossible task, and that we can share Christ with anyone anywhere in the world, so that they can make an intelligent choice whether to follow Him.

*Names changed for privacy purposes.

Gambling Recovery

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In order to help our Panamanian Chinese friends, we looked into how someone becomes a compulsive gambler and the recovery process. The offending cycle starts with occasional gambling and the person experiencing a winning stage, which tempts him to gamble more frequently for the excitement, and stimulates his greed to increase his bets. This is typical of other forms of addiction, in which the victim gets hooked in more and more because the “poison” is sugar-coated, and is standard in the schemes of the devil (Eph 6:11).

Next comes a losing stage in which the gambler is preoccupied with gambling, affecting his work, ignoring his family, chasing losses in the hope of regaining his money, but sinking more and more into debt and lying to cover it up. Then comes a desperation stage in which the person tries to borrow from family and friends, destroying his reputation and alienating himself from them. He resorts to illegal means to obtain money to service his debts and continue gambling, and sinks into a state of hopelessness.

This is a crucial phase, in which the gambler either wallows in despair and may have suicidal tendencies, or receives help, wakes up from his nightmare, and enters a critical stage towards recovery. With counseling he could start climbing out of the abyss he fell in, return to work and take responsibility for his problems.

A rebuild stage follows, in which the reforming gambler develops goals and restitution plans, improves relationship with his spouse, family and friends, and regains self-respect. Over time this evolves into a growth stage, whereby he gains an understanding of himself and others, turns from caring only for himself to caring for others, and enters a new way of life.

Helping a gambler recover is a long, arduous process requiring a lot of patience and perseverance. He will stumble many times and needs a supportive family, friends and a church that understands the struggles he and his family are facing. We pray your church can be one that helps a prodigal to return.

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Abused? Divorce?

Q. My unbelieving husband abused me physically and mentally? I would rather die than continue like this. Can I divorce him?

A. I am sorry that your husband is like that. A man who abuses his wife or children is not fit to be a husband or father, but is a coward who vents his inferiority on those physically weaker than he. Death is not a solution to your pain, and the Bible permits divorce only in the case of sexual immorality (Mt 5:32, 19:9; see yesterday’s post), or abandonment (desertion) by an unbelieving spouse:
1 Co 7:15 Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.

Your husband is unbelieving, so if he chooses to leave, let him leave. You are not bound to the abusive marriage. However, if he does not show any inclination to leave, the biblical option is separation. Nowhere in the Bible does it require an abused wife to submit herself to her abusive husband. Her safety and that of her children are paramount. She can extract herself and any small children to a safe shelter, whether to her parents, her friends, or to a government-run shelter.

In fact, abuse is a criminal offense in many jurisdictions, and must be reported to the authorities. And it is not restricted to physical violence either. The abuse could be physical (e.g. hitting), sexual (e.g. subjecting her to his perversions), verbal (e.g. taunts), emotional (e.g. tearing down her self-worth), and mental-psychological torment. If you are afraid, inform your family or close friends and ask the church to help. The police could place restraining orders on the abusive husband, or put him in jail if he poses a threat to you and/or the children’s safety.

The best option of course is for your husband to become a Christian submitted to the Word of God. Pray that the Holy Spirit will convict his heart of sin, righteousness, and judgment (Jn 16:8). Ask your pastor or church leaders to witness to him, and pray for his conversion. If he is truly repentant, reconciliation is possible. Don’t submit in silence. God never intended you to.