Sunday, January 14, 2007

Rainy Days, Luke 9, John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" and Christian Suffering

Besieged by trebuchets of unrelenting rain over the last two months, claustrophobically cooped up indoors, there being no serendipity whatsoever between those little windows of sunshine and my sporadic gaps of freetime, restless with unexpended adrenaline...
Restless in the Office Toilet
Restless in the Office Toilet
Restless in the restroom (with a Pilot V5 Black)

Bored in the Boardroom
Bored in the boardroom (with Helvetica Black)
(We heart Helvetica Black. Especially how the lowercase A glyph gives that coy little kick to the right. Ok. Not really.) distractingly fidgety and squirmy during Adult Meeting, CLOBS and Sunday service that someone threatened the immediate administration of Valium via a nice thick needle, enough was enough. And out we went.

Pizza Da DonatoPizza Da DonatoPizza Da Donato
One night, there was pizza waiting impatiently for us at Pizza Da Donato on Sixth Avenue. Late another night, there was sitting under that mishmash of leftover Christmas and early Chinese New Year decorations unique to a Singapore kopi tiam. We nattered about God in breakups and ex-es and running our own schools and backpacking the world. On yet another stormy night, there was rolling up of trouser legs and wading through riverlets of water for a special delivery, still dripping with rain, of hot seafood hor fun and steaming porridge from Crystal Jade for the Overnighters.

On the fourth night, there was nothing but slickness and blackness and wet cold that seeped into bones, so there was teriyaki and bento and sukiyaki at Akashi Restaurant with 9 people at a long wooden slab of table gesticulating and talking simultaneously about "The Peak" until someone exclaimed,"Aiyah. Got 3 guy leads and 1 girl lead. What do you think? Must be 3 guys chase 1 girl lah!", to which 6 people laughed at his outdated heterosexual naïveness and the other 2 ordered more sake, which led to talk about the new reality show "Gay, Straight or Taken?" in which there are 3 guy contestants ("sleek and gelled, strong of chin and hard of ab") and 1 girl contestant, and then the different permutations that can result, in this pansexual age, from putting them on a Survivor-style island together with 2 sheep and a male dog...[Q: But ought we laugh lightly at the latest trends in prurience?]

In the grey bleak morning, there was an sms:"Bakkutteh at Balestier? Although if it rains, it might be problematic..." and there were visions of floating a sampan past the flooded florists at Thomson with their buoys of potted plants and befuddled pythons, hanging a left down Balestier Road, then tying the raft to a stake outside Founder, gingerly lifting a steaming claypot of pork ribs soaked in peppery soup aboard, balancing bowls of you tiao and kiam chye and rice and chopsticks and little plates of red chilli sliced into thick black sauce, bobbing about and eating, and tossing the cleaned bones over, port-side, to stray dogs swimming past, doggie-style.

Mussel Pot at Brussel SproutsMussel Shells at Brussel Sprouts
In the grey evening, the rain carried on in sheets, unremittingly and we ended up at Emmanuel Stroobant's new Brussel Sprouts. Not flooded enough for sampans (so without threat of an imbalance in anyone's inner ear), it was all ruddy-faced cheerfulness, hot tasty pots of mussels, foie gras pate, calling fowl for the one who wouldn't have dead cow, 70! types of hardy Belgian beer - beware evil Hep A viruses lurking in dark wet alleyways! (not), and, hanging off their stout manly arms, mounds of the frites in moules frites, snugly ensconced in virginal white bowls. (And yes, there was mention of Belgo, London and its £5 meals. But only one. A very brief one. And not soppy at all. Really.)

Tea and A Chat
As the downpour started to peter out, and the black deepened in the sky, and the wind swept down the corridors in the chilly aftermath, there was time for drinks and questions so embarrassing they had to be typed out on a mobile, so of course the discussion reverberated through the quiet coffeeshop at the loudest possible volume. And there was an sms:"Wht u dg 4 din tom? Wan din?"

Task of Tusk Fish
The task of tusk fish
So there was calamari and fish and prawns and scallops the next day at the Greenwood Fish Market & Bistro (where seafood is fresh and unbulky and good for antsy people who have been stuck indoors without sun or frisbee or tennis, and no, spanking the monkey wouldn't have helped any) and catching up and a nice drive-about after.

Cafe Le Caire
The next day, it was still drizzling when we got to Café Le Caire @ Al Majlis post-fidgetySundayservice (where in the midst of fidgeting, a certain metal part of a pen was accidentally propelled into the unsuspecting congregation) for babaganush, kebabs and mint tea and ribbing about skinny jeans.
Skinny Jeans
Gratuitous photo of skinny jeans

And after, under brollies, we trundled along to Samar Café for more mint tea, laban lauzan and a spot of quiet reading. At Samar Café on a muted afternoon, with the patter of rain on the awning and on the pavement, the passage of time is marked by tall silent black-thobed waiters making their rounds in sandalled feet, bearing smoking bowls of incense.

Monsoon days are obviously the best days for seeing people. And t'was good to meet up and to talk about God and his work in our lives, but the adrenaline continued to rise to bursting point with no avenue for release...

...which turned out to be a good thing for Luke 9 and "Pilgrim's Progress": entering a bookshop for some Thomas Pynchon or failing which some T.S. Eliot, left instead with John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress", which, if judged by its cover art (hello, Edward Burne-Jones and attendant silly dreamy pre-Raphaelite sentimentality) and font, is the sort of limp romantic novel read by girls with a fascination for charitable good works and knitting lacy tea-cosies. Disregarding its cheesy allegorical method, it was a good companion to Luke 9 which we started on at this week's ARPC DG Bible study.
One Thing
In Luke 9, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die (and thereafter, be resurrected) (Luke 9:22). He warns them to be faithful despite certain rejection by the world. Discipleship is not easy. This is the cost:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)
It is dangerous to our salvation to lack a proper Biblical doctrine of suffering. If we know nothing about the certainty of suffering and adversity in the life of a Christian, then when we meet with them (as we surely will), we will be faint of heart, give up the faith and return to the road to Hades. But amongst the promises to God's children is this: that it is only through many tribulations that we enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22), and if we are to be glorified with Christ, we are also to suffer with him (Romans 8:17-30).

Denying Ourselves
Once in a while (usually during festive periods), the developed world enjoys a bit of self-flagellation, laying on the guilt trip by contrasting pictures of a pasty overweight person dripping in obiang jewellery and a little bony child with a dirty clothes hardly masking his protruding ribs. Consumerist societies are made to feel disgust (if even only for a pinprick-while) at their own over-eating, over-spending, blatant wastage and lack of self-control. Assuage your guilt, deny yourself, we are told, by skipping a meal, by taking public transport for one day and donating your savings to a charity or sponsoring a child.

But Luke 9:23 is saying more than this. Just as Christ always denied his own human will and desires, that is, his will and desires were always subordinate to the Father's, so we must deny our own will and desires and be subordinate to Christ's. This includes submitting to God's will in any given matter (for example, abstaining from fornication (1 Thessalonians 4:3)). But a life of self-denial is more than making donations to World Vision or possessing superb self-control that will allow us to follow the tenets of strict morality - it is completely denying that any aspect of our lives is ours: we would not exist if we were not created by the Creator God and our very existence would have ceased if not for the continued sustenance of that same God. Therefore nothing in our lives, not our bodies, possessions, thoughts, words, deeds, goals, value is ours. We deny that we have any rights over them. Everything is submitted to God because we and they are God's in the first place.

In denying ourselves, in turning from ourselves, what do we embrace and turn to?

Taking up our crosses daily and following Christ
Far too often perhaps, we Christians think of the cross as something to be preached to the lost, as a milestone that we have passed at some point in our lives and that we have moved on from. But if we are to deny ourselves and turn from our own will and desires, then what we are to embrace and turn to is the will and desire of God in the cross - in both its salvific form as well as its metaphoric form. Just as it was God's willed plan that Jesus' life was to be marked suffering, rejection, humiliation, death and resurrection, so it is also God's willed plan that suffering, rejection, humiliation, death and resurrection will mark the life of a Christian, for we were predestined to be conformed to Christ's image. This does not mean that we will necessarily be thrown into prison, scourged, made to wear a crown of pricklies and nailed to a cross on a rainy day, though there will be Christians who will lose their physical lives because of the gospel.

It is possible that Jesus' cross was not so much the physical one, though that was very real, as the metaphoric one - the great temptation to sin against God to avoid terrible physical suffering. And as an extension of the denial of self, the cross we bear daily are our sufferings and struggles not so much against earthly powers as against the more deadly enemy - sin, against retaining our false kingship in certain aspects in our lives, against preferring our own will and desires over that of God. Many parts of the Bible make this link, for example:
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (Hebrews 12:3-4)
(As with God, nothing is merely gratuitous. The acts of suffering/struggling against our sinful flesh daily produce hosts of benefits. See, for example, 2 Corinthians 4:11, 2 Corinthians 12:7, Romans 5:3-4, Hebrews 12:10, James 3:17-18, Psalm 119:67, 2 Timothy 3:17, 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, 2 Corinthians 1...)

And just as our suffering is not due exclusively to external forces but the sinfulness that is within us, so the suffering of a church body will not be due exclusively to external forces (eg. persecution, false teachers coming from the outside) but also to the continued sinfulness of members within that church body (eg. hypocrisy, pride, ambition, envy). When we encounter blatant temptation to rebel against God, for example, if someone demands at gunpoint that we deny Christ, obedience is clear, and in that sense, easy. But encountering the sinfulness of our brothers and sisters within the church which may hurt or discourage us, we face the more subtle temptation: to retaliate - a sin for a sin.

(At which point I said, despondently,"Well, the person who'll get the last laugh in all of this is the devil." But the SnifflyOne calmly replied,"No, God will get the last laugh because he will use all this, even the disobedience and sinfulness of humans, for his glory." And the OverworkedOne added later, stabbing a fry in the air to emphasize the point,"God wouldn't think it much of a laughing matter. He will judge us for our sin and rebellion. But yes, ultimately, in the end, he will definitely win.")
Pilgrim's Progress
How nice it would be if all temptations were nicely and clearly labelled a la "Pilgrim's Progress". We'd all give Doubting Castle a wide berth, as we would Vanity Fair (where pilgrims are pressured into purchasing all sorts of vanities: houses, lands, trades, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones...). And how helpful it would be if all people were conveniently named so we'd know whom to walk alongside and whom to ignore: "Hullo, your name's Mr. Worldly Wise? Oh, right. Good day to you then."

But life is not a pantomime or a morality play where situations are clearcut and people are either wholly good or wholly bad.

Neither is life anything like Doom: there are no God-mode cheats or invincibility hacks available here.

But we do have better stuff: God's word - the lamp for our feet, Jesus - on whom we can fix our eyes (Hebrews 12:2), the Spirit who helps us in our denying of self and cross-carrying, and God's promise - for those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Romans 8:29-30).

I suppose for the rest of the days of our lives, the daily, even minute-by-minute, temptation will always be to embrace ourselves, to cast off the cross, to live comfy lives unharrassed by the (increasing) evidence of our own depravity and unhindered by the constant struggle to replace God as king in our lives. Yet, if we remember the faithful who have gone before us on this road, if we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and take up our cross, and run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12:1-3).
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:5-11)


Pizza Da Donato: Pizza Al Taglio
8 Sixth Avenue
Singapore 276473
(+65) 6219 7562

Brussel Sprouts
80 Mohamed Sultan Road
#01-12 The Pier at Robertson
Singapore 239013
(+65) 6887 4344

Greenwood Fish Market & Bistro
34 Greenwood Avenue
Singapore 289236
(+65) 6467 4950

Café Le Caire
39 Arab Street
Singapore 199738
(+65) 6292 0979

Samar Café
19 Baghdad Street
(+65) 6398 0530



At January 19, 2007 10:59 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

God tests you, not for him to find out what’s inside of you but for you to find out what’s inside of you. He tests you so you’ll know your level of commitment, and he tests you so that you can know his faithfulness. His purpose is to teach you. Some of you are going through some difficult times right now and you feel like dropping out of the race. You’re discouraged because the situation seems unmanageable. Unreasonable. Unfair. It may seem unbearable. Inside you’re basically saying, “God, I can’t take it any more. I just can’t take it any more!” But you can. You can take it some more because God is with you. He’ll enable you. Remember, you are never a failure until you quit, because quitting means you won’t make it to the finish line. Great people fight discouragement. Here’s a tip to help: When you get discouraged, ignore it. Just say to yourself, “I don’t have time to be discouraged right now. I’m too busy fulfilling my life mission.” That doesn’t mean you’re a Pollyanna and pretend that everything’s great. Life is a mixture of good and bad. You can be realistic, but you also need to be optimistic because you are a Christian. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And “Lo, I am with you always,” God says. He will help you, and he will strengthen you. Faith starts with optimism.

At January 26, 2007 11:35 am , Anonymous x said...

oooh.... u got there even before wong ah yoke


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