In 2005, a movie came out entitled “Joyeux Noel” which presented one of the most amazing stories that came out of World War 1. This war left a continent totally devastated and the cost of human lives went well into the millions. But, from the midst of this bloodiest war at that time in human history, came a story of a Christmas truce that took place in December 2014. The Western Front, where this story comes from, was a deplorable scene of devastation and it was only a few months into the war. As the sun set on Christmas eve, the sound of gun fire and exploding shells faded away in the darkness and the faint singing of carols could be heard, French and English voices on one side and German voices on the other. Slowly the volume increased and broke the silence of the night. This led to an informal and unauthorised truce where soldiers on both sides met each other on no man’s land to share the precious moment of Christmas.
Whilst this truce of 1914 was memorable, it lacked permanence. Soon the Christmas celebration subsided and the soldiers went back into the trenches and the war continued. A few decades later, Europe became a battle field once again during World War 2. Even today the world does not know lasting peace. The peace this world gives is only temporary like the truce of 1914.
To find lasting peace we must look to no other place than the manger, where we find God’s gift to us that would bring lasting peace – a lasting reconciliation in our relationship with God and a lasting relationship with the people around us. This baby, born in a manger, would one day become the Saviour of the world, the Prince of Peace, the only hope for this world to find lasting peace. This helpless baby was Immanuel, which is translated “God with us” because this baby was God coming in the flesh, to sacrifice His life so that helpless humanity can find lasting hope and peace.
As we celebrate Christmas, this prayer of Robert Louis Stevenson is my prayer for you and your family:
Help us remember the birth of Jesus,
that we may share in the song of the angels,
the gladness of the shepherds,
and worship of the wise men.
Close the door of hate
and open the door of love all over the world.
Let kindness come with every gift
and good desires with every greeting.
Deliver us from evil by the blessing
which Christ brings,
and teach us to be merry with clear hearts.
May the Christmas morning
make us happy to be thy children,
and Christmas evening bring us to our beds
with grateful thoughts,
forgiving and forgiven,
for Jesus’ sake.
Do you know there is one game that most people, if not all people, are good at? It’s a game where there are no winners and everyone actually loses in the end. This game has been around ever since human beings walked on this earth.
Can you think what that game is? Go on, give it a try. You may have even played that game. Give up? It’s called the Blame Game. This game was first invented by Adam and Eve. They learned this game when they gave in to temptation and disobeyed God.
God asked Adam, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?” (Genesis 3:11)
Instead of owning up, Adam shifted the blame to Eve. “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12)
So, God goes to Eve. And of course, Eve learned the blame game very quickly. “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:13)
And the serpent? Well, he had no legs to stand on. (Sorry, I couldn’t help that.)
Ever since Adam and Eve invented this blame game, it has spread throughout the ages and to every corner of the world. In fact, humanity has become the master of the blame game. Without even thinking about it we can blame others so that we end up looking good. I have to be honest. I have also played that game.
Growing up I was never good at the blame game. When I was a young kid, I often pushed the blame on my brother. Unfortunately, it never worked as everyone knew that my brother was the “angel” and I was the “devil”. Later on, when I was 13 or 14 years of age, the school I went to didn’t have the language classes my parents wanted me to take, so I had to go to another school for language lessons. I hated going to those language classes so I started cutting class. I would hang out with my friends at the video arcades playing pinball machines and space invaders. Once you start cutting classes, you start to enjoy the new-found freedom. I started cutting class after class, and in the end, I didn’t go to my language class for nearly 3 months. I thought because it was in another school, my school wouldn’t know. Was I wrong! I got called up to my principal’s office and was asked why I had not been attending language classes for a while. “My mum locked my books in her cupboard so I couldn’t attend classes, Sir.” As I was giving that answer, I remember thinking to myself it was such a dumb answer. And it was. The principal picked up the phone and called my home. I lost the blame game and ended up with a really sore bottom as well.
As I got older I became better in the blame game and could make my stories sound more believable. Then at the age of 16, I encountered Christ. He changed my life. But not only that, I learned the Christian version of the blame game through attending prayer meetings.
Oh God, I want to pray for workmate John. Lord, YOU know how much of a pain he is, how difficult he can be and how irritating he is. Lord You know how stubborn he can be and he just doesn’t help me at all at work even though I try to be patient with him. Lord YOU know how I try to help him but he does nothing to help me. Deal with him Lord. Change his heart and make him more like YOU. Help him to understand what I am saying and make him change his ways Lord. Thank you, Lord. Amen.
God had to show me quickly the Christian version of the blame game is just as bad as the Garden of Eden version. As I got to discover more and more who Jesus is, He showed me more and more the way to live. But more importantly, He taught me how I need to be honest with myself, with God and with others. Jesus, instead of blaming others for what was wrong, took the blame on Himself. He was the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world (John 1:29). He became the scapegoat for everything that was wrong with the world (Leviticus 16: 10).
So instead of blaming others, I can come to Jesus and acknowledge my sin to Him. He is willing to be my sacrificial lamb, my scapegoat. He frees me from the weight of the pride, guilt, or fear that causes me to blame others. I do not need to rationalise or blame others for the mistakes, or wrong decisions I have made, because God knows the truth anyway. If I try to cover or hide my sins by blaming others, or pretending that I am innocent, the Bible says I will not prosper. But if I acknowledge, confess and forsake my faults and mistakes, I will find mercy (Proverbs 28:13). I have learnt it is better to be honest and own up when I make a mistake or have done something wrong. It is then I can find forgiveness and mercy from God and from others.
What do you think?
I spoke to a friend this week who had experienced a loss of a loved one. I asked her how has things been and tears welled up in her eyes as she said it had been hard. It broke my heart to see my friend suffering from the pain of grief. Losing a treasured loved one leaves a huge hole in our life and we struggle to know how to become whole again.
Our life is altered forever. We may move on. The pain may lessen. New people may come into our lives but the hole will always be there because the memories we have remind us how much we miss having that person around. We grieve because we loved that person deeply. The person played a significant role in our lives and we treasured the moments we had with that person. We grieve because we have been painfully robbed of that person’s love and presence. We can no longer share life together or create new memories.
God does not expect us to rush through grief. Grief is a healthy normal human emotion. Even Jesus experienced grief. For example, He grieved at the tomb of His close friend Lazarus and wept over Jerusalem. He also felt separated from His Father on the cross. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me!” Jesus, the Son of God, was not immune from the pain of grief. He experienced grief just like you and I. If Jesus could love the Father and believed in His promises and still grieved, then it is okay for us to have faith in God and know that He is near but still grieve also.
“The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34: 18). God comes alongside us as we grieve. Instead of hurrying past the pain of grief, set aside time to grieve with God. Don’t push aside the strong emotions that you are feeling. You will feel anger, fear, and despair. When these emotions rise up in you, allow yourself to feel them in God’s presence. Having understood the pain of grief our Lord is able to be close at hand to comfort and support you. Support may come in unexpected ways – a pleasant memory, a friend’s visit, a timely note, a comforting dream. God never leaves you alone. He is holding your hand, drying your tears and whispering comfort to your crushed spirit.
Don’t grieve alone. We need each other in times of grief. When supporting people who grieve, be there to listen and support. We are not there to “fix” the grieving person. Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1: 3-4). In the same way as God comes alongside us to comfort us, we are called to come alongside others to comfort them.
Grief is something we experience in the presence of God and others. I guess that is why we have funerals and wakes. We need God and we need others to journey with us through our grief. My prayer is that you dont go through grief alone.
I have just come back from a 9 day trip to Cambodia. As I reflect on my various experiences on this trip, I can see God at work here in the midst of extreme poverty and human brokenness that has come, at least in part, due to the ravages of the war and Khmer Rouge occupation. Whilst visiting the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (one of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields) and the Tuoul Sleng Genocide Museum (a former High School used as the notorious Security Prison 21 or S-21 by the Khmer Rouge), I was overwhelmed at the cruelty and evil of the Cambodian genocide. Over 1.7 million of Cambodia’s 8 million inhabitants perished from disease, starvation, overwork, or outright execution because of the profoundly destructive policies of Angkar, the organisational hierarchy of the Khmer Rouge. One of the propaganda statements of Angkar was “To keep you is no gain and to destroy you is no loss.”
Visiting the sites made me realise how evil the Cambodian genocide was. One man that I read about in the sites I visited was Kang Kek Lew or, as he became better known, Comrade Duch. He was the head of the government’s dreaded special branch, the “Santebal”. As the head of Santebal, Duch was in charge of internal security and the running of prison camps including the S-21 prison camp where fourteen thousand prisoners were held for interrogation and torture and from which there are only 14 known survivors. He was the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and was convicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment. He appealed the sentence, lost and had his sentence extended to life imprisonment.
Duch was extremely efficient and kept records of every person who came to S-21 detailing every torture session and every murder. His subordinates would hang prisoners upside down with their heads in a bucket of urine and faeces. Throats were slit, heads were bashed with a shovel, necks were broken with a hoe. Babies were killed by swinging them by the legs and smashing their heads against a tree. However, what got me interested in this man was the way he seemed to have changed from being a very viciously cruel man, to one who admitted his faults including those of his subordinates.
As I started reading up on Duch, I realised that the story of Duch’s transformation must start with another man, Christopher LaPel, who later became the founder of Hope for Cambodia.
LaPel was born a Buddhist. His father worked in the palace of King Sihanouk and, as a boy, LaPel spent a lot time there. One day, while exploring the palace he met an engraver working in the basement and asked the engraver if he could make him a cross. Without knowing what it meant, LaPel had seen this icon on top of churches and was drawn to it.
In 1975, when LaPel was in his late teens, the Khmer Rouge came to power. They forced people out of Phnom Penh, and sent them on forced marches to rural work camps. What was meant to be a three-day evacuation of Phnom Penh became a three-year ordeal with most of the population enduring extreme hardship and during which a quarter of the population lost their lives. LaPel’s parents and sister died working 14-16 hours a day in forced labour and his brother was executed by the regime.
LaPel worked in the fields with other young people. Eventually, as his body got weaker due to the workload, he couldn’t get up to work and ended up missing work for three days. Usually if a person missed work for three days, they were killed. So, on the third night he received a call to report to the Khmer Rouge army headquarters. At the headquarters, they yelled at him to get on his knees and he was questioned vigorously. Almost delirious with fever he struggled to remain kneeling and wobbled around. While he was trying to stay on his feet, his cross fell off from around his neck and he grabbed it. At that point, one officer said that he truly looked sick and allowed him to rest at a hospital. LaPel was amazed and believed the cross had given him a measure of grace that saved him from a desperate situation.
Shortly after that that incident, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. LaPel fled across the border into Thailand and arrived at a refugee centre run by the U.N. where he was chosen to be a translator because he spoke Cambodian and a little bit of English and French. One day at a feeding centre, he met a missionary and she shared the gospel with him. For the first time, he understood the meaning of the cross and realised this was the truth he was waiting for. He became a follower of Jesus and experienced God’s forgiveness and saving grace. He also met a young Christian woman and they got married. Through some remarkable circumstances, he and his wife immigrated to America where he studied and later became a pastor.
In 1992, he returned back to Cambodia where he ministered at refugee camps. He also tried to find his family and discovered the horrible outcome of his parents and brother and sister. Fortunately, four of his brothers and sisters were still alive and he brought them to America where they all became followers of Christ.
Later, he returned back to Cambodia and planted a small fellowship in Battambang. This fellowship grew to 5 and then 27, then 56. Today there are 150 churches that grew from that one fellowship with an average Sunday attendance of 7,500 people.
In 1995 a man named Hang Pin started coming to LaPel’s training meetings. He was a frail and heavily burdened 55-year-old. LaPel led him to Christ and baptised him. There was an immediate transformation in that person as if a heavy burden had lifted. Over the next two weeks, this man attended every meeting that LaPel taught at taking extensive notes. He couldn’t get enough of that teachings about Jesus. He took on a new lease of life and began telling everyone about Jesus, the cross and the power of forgiveness. After the two weeks training, Hang Pin went back to his hometown and started a small thriving church and worked with World Vision. LaPel also led Hang Pin’s sister to Christ.
In late 1998, or early 1999, LaPel received a letter from Hang Pin asking for prayer. He planned to turn himself over to government authorities. Then, in 1999, LaPel got a phone call from 2 American reporters that shook him. The reporters had proof that Pastor Hang Pin was really Comrade Duch. When the reporters told LaPel that they had confronted Pin with their suspicions he confessed that it was true. LaPel could barely speak. This man he led to Christ was one of the key leaders of the Khmer Rouge and responsible for killing his parents, his brother and sister and thousands of his fellow Cambodians.
In 2007, Duch was formally charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity by the UN backed court in Cambodia. In 2008, LaPel came face-to-face with Duch in his prison cell, LaPel’s first words to Duch were “I love you as a brother in Christ. I forgive you for what you did to my family.” LaPel said he could not receive forgiveness from Jesus for his own sins and refuse to forgive Duch for what he did to his family no matter how evil and cruel he was. During the trial, Duch was taken to S-21. Overwhelmed by the horrible memories and God’s transformative power in his life he said to the people present, “I ask for your forgiveness. I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might.”
LaPel testified at Duch’s trial. For an hour and a half, he spoke about the power of Christ to lead a person to repentance and of God’s grace. He talked about Christ’s ability to transform and rebuild a life. He did not ask for leniency for Duch, but he did speak about the reality of his remarkable change. International lawyers, judges, and 500 spectators listened in rapt attention.
Today Duch is still in prison. LaPel meets with Duch every time he is in Cambodia where they pray, share and have communion together. “We are all guilty sinners,” LaPel notes. “Jesus Christ is the only hope of the Cambodian people. He is the only one who can change a life from a killer to a believer.”
This story of the transformation of Duch tells me that God can turn Cambodia, the land of the Killing Fields, to the land of Redemptive Fields. May God work his redemptive grace in our own lives also.
I am writing this blog in Cambodia. As I look out of the window in the lounge of the apartment I am in, I see a passenger boat gently moving along the beautiful river which the apartment overlooks. Phnom Penh is situated at the confluence of three rivers, the mighty Mekong, the Bassac and the great Tonle Sap, once considered the “Gem” of Indochina and is the heartbeat of Cambodia. This mighty Mekong River rises from the Himalayan mountain of Tibet and gradually builds up as it winds its way through China, Myanmar, Thailand Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before flowing into the South China Sea. Looking out at the river in front of me, I hope that Joy and I will get a chance while we are here to take a boat ride along the river.
It was the front view of this apartment that attracted me to this place as I was looking at accommodation on Airbnb. It had such a beautiful outlook and had a lovely layout. However, when we came to the apartment, we found out where the apartment was located. We arrived at night. We came through the front of the apartment and it was located above a bar. We were taken into the apartment which was lovely and were introduced to its views. We were then given the keys to the door and to the gate at the back of the apartment block. When we were shown the gate, we realised that the apartment block backed into what appeared to be the red light district of Phnom Penh. Coming out of the gate, we found ourselves on a street lit very brightly with bars and nightclubs and patrons being entertained by Cambodian girls. We realised quickly that the front outlook of the apartment fooled us into thinking that it was a lovely place without realising that behind that beautiful façade is a kind of night life that I stay away from.
The next day we walked down the street to a lovely looking restaurant for breakfast. I smiled and greeted the waitresses there before sitting down and apparently, I was asked if I wanted some female entertainment (I didn’t hear it as I was focusing on something more important like ordering some breakfast but Joy heard it and told me and I was advised by her to stop smiling and be a bit more solemn).
The location of the apartment got me thinking. What is it that I keep hidden away, not wanting people to know or see. I want people to see the beautiful me, the kind me, the lovely me. That’s the part of me that I advertise. It’s the part of me like that beautiful river that people can admire. But then, what is it that I don’t want people to see, that I keep well hidden away. If people see that part of me, they won’t like me anymore. They might reject me. Just like if I had known where the apartment backed onto, I would not have chosen the apartment and would have looked for something else.
As humans, we have built-in survival skills. Our desire to be accepted causes us to hide certain parts of our lives for fear that if people knew they would reject us. We want to fit in and be socially acceptable. We are scared to let others see the real person. For some of us, we can’t even face our own selves. As a consequence, we try to hide parts of our self even from our own self and pretend they are not there.
Fear stops us from being real. We put on a mask so that we feel safe. However, the apostle John reminds us that perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4: 18). God, who is perfect love, accepts us as who we are. He knows everything about us, the parts of our life we want to show the world and the parts of our life we choose to keep hidden. God’s love casts out the fear that makes us pretend about ourselves and allows us to accept ourselves for who we are. When we become honest before God about who we are, that is when He starts to change us and make us more like Christ.
Even more importantly than God’s love for us, John goes on to say in 1 John 4: 19, we can love others in the same way we are loved because God loves us warts and all. This is why church should be a safe place to be real. We all have faults and weaknesses and by being real to one another, God can help us find support and healing to be the true person God wants us to be.
So, as I look out at the river in front of me, it encourages me to be a person who is real and to love and accept people I come across despite their weaknesses and faults.
The other day, someone shared with me how a person whom she works with is constantly bringing up issues about her and keeps reminding her how she needs to change. This person finds it hard to tell her work colleague to back off because she is a friend and she does not want to hurt her.
This got me thinking. We all have friends. There are different levels of friendships. Some are acquaintances that we have come to know and they are people we will say “hi” to but we won’t really hang out with. Some of these acquaintances we want to avoid because they can sometimes be a pain and drain us. Then there are friends who are great companions. We enjoy socialising with them and hanging out with them and they prevent us from feeling lonely. But acquaintances and companions come and go. Or, using the words from social media, they are people whom we “friend” when they enter our lives and “unfriend” when they leave or do something and we don’t want to be connected to them anymore.
Then, there is a third level of friendship where there is a deep bond within the relationship. Some people call these friends “besties” or “soul-mates”. The Bible calls them “true friends”. Proverbs 18: 24 says, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Some people may be your friend when it benefits them, but will betray you or cause you ruin because you relied on them too much and then they let you down. A true friend who sticks closer than a brother or a sister is one whom you can trust with your own life. They won’t stab you in the back. Instead they watch your back.
What else does the Bible say about a true friend?
- A true friend loves unconditionally and will stand with you through adversity
Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.“ In other words, a true friend loves us despite our weaknesses and imperfections They do not judge us but accept us unconditionally. Using Paul’s definition of unconditional love in 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7, we could say that a true friend is patient and kind to us; they are not jealous, boastful, proud or rude; neither are they demanding, irritable or maintaining a list of things we do wrong. They don’t enjoy seeing you treated unjustly but are pleased when truth wins out. They never give up on you but have faith and hope in you and will endure with you through all circumstances.
- A true friend shows sacrificial love (John 15: 13)
Jesus says in John 15: 13, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus showed us what it means to be a true friend. His love for the various people he met was unconditional, never selfish. He showed it in the way he accepted and loved people, ministering to people in need, and even humbly washing the feet of His disciples. The final demonstration of His unconditional love was when He gave his life so that we can be reconciled to God. A true friend is one who values you more than their own life and is willing to humbly serve you following Jesus’ example (see also Philippians 2: 3-8)
- A true friend has your best interest at heart (Proverbs 27: 6)
Proverbs 27: 6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted”. True friends will build each other up emotionally and spiritually. They are there when we need encouragement and love, but at times they will say the difficult things we need to hear. Yet, because of the trust and acceptance, a true friend can deliver the hard message with truth and grace. This is what Proverbs 27:17 means when it says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
As I reflect on what a true friend is, I am challenged to be a true friend to those who I meet and follow the example Christ set of being a true friend. What if we all did that at church, being a true friend to each other? Wouldn’t our church community be such a warm, loving and caring fellowship? Maybe then we would demonstrate true biblical fellowship.
This past week I had a very fascinating lunch with two sisters whose mother passed away recently from cancer. At one stage, the doctors had given their mum 24 hours to live as she was in a very bad state. However, she survived and even came back home. She shared a story to her family of how, when she lay dying, she went to heaven and was asked if she wanted to stay or to go back. She chose to go back and spend a little bit more time with her family. That experience renewed the faith of this lady but, more importantly, it triggered a spiritual search in her two daughters.
One of the daughters shared with me how she had a dream of her mother when she finally died. She was so beautiful and radiant with no sign of aging. She was a picture of perfection. I believe God gave this daughter this dream to reassure her that her mum is now free from the pain and suffering of this world and is now in this beautiful place we call heaven.
What happens to you when you get to heaven? Does the person you knew on earth become someone different when they die? Would that person recognise us when we meet them in heaven? (Of course, to meet our loved ones in heaven we need to also trust in Jesus Christ as our saviour and Lord here on earth). The answer is simple. You will continue being you when you get to heaven. So, if you are “Joe” on earth, you continue to be “Joe” in Heaven. The only difference is that you have left your earthly body on earth.
When Jesus told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, they both recognised each other after they had died (Luke 6: 19-31). Later, when Jesus was resurrected from the dead, He remained who He was when He died. Jesus came to his disciples after His resurrection, He told them “It is I Myself!” (Luke 24:39). The disciples all recognised Him. Jesus continued being who he was after His ascension.
This is where Christianity differs from Buddhism or Hinduism. We do not believe in reincarnation which teaches that we changing who we are till we achieve perfection. Theologian Bruce Milne writes, “We can banish all fear of being absorbed into the ‘All’ which Buddhism holds before us, or reincarnated in some other life form as in the post-mortem prospect of Hinduism…The self with which we were endowed by the Creator is His gift of life to us, the self whose worth was secured forever in the self-substitution of God for us on the cross, that self will endure into eternity. Death cannot destroy us.” (Bruce Milne, The Message of Heaven and Hell. Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002. 194.)
In Isaiah 66: 2 we read, “‘As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,’ declares the Lord, ‘so will your name and descendants endure’”. In other words, our own personal history and identity will remain as we move from the present earth to the new heaven and earth.
The Bible tells us that the names of those who place their trust in Jesus are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Revelation 20: 15; 21: 27). I am pretty certain that the names that are written in that Book of Life would be our earthly names. However, the Bible also tells us that we will receive a new name in Heaven (Isaiah 62: 2; 66: 15; Revelation 2: 17; 3:12). This new name, however, does not invalidate your old name or your identity.
Why is it important that we keep our identity after we die and leave this earth? It is because, unlike reincarnation, we have only one life to live after which we have to give an account to God on how we have lived that life (Hebrews 9: 27-28; 2 Corinthians 5:10). If our identity changes after we die, then we can’t be rewarded or held accountable for anything we did before we died. The doctrine of judgment and eternal rewards depends on people retaining their unique identities from one life to the next.
So, for us as followers of Christ, this is good news. Firstly, our names will be written in the Book of Life and we will be with God forever. Secondly, all our loved ones who have also believed in Christ will be with us forever. We will recognise them as their identities will remain the same. Finally, having lived our lives for the glory of God here on earth, we will receive our eternal rewards for all the good works we did on earth as our identity goes with us into eternity.
How important should Christian unity be? This past week that question has been on my mind. We would all agree that unity is a biblical concept and Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one (John 17: 23). How high a priority should be given to Christian unity and should it be above other aspects of church life? The reality is that many of us, consciously or unconsciously rank unity quite low. How do I know that? Over my years in ministry I have had to spend a large portion of my time dealing with conflicts within the church – conflicts over theology, ministry, inter-personal relationships, worship & music styles, jealousy, pastors / staff (either you love them or hate them), change, cliques, finances – these are just a few of the conflicts I have had to deal with in my ministry the last 25+ years.
Why was unity so important to Jesus? I think the answer is found in the prayer that Jesus prayed in John 17: 20-23. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (emphasis mine). In other words, unity amongst his followers was very important to Jesus because it would be a testimony to the world that Jesus was the promised anointed one sent by God.
Think about that for a second. If Christian unity tells the world that Jesus Christ was sent by God to reconcile people to Himself so that they could become one in Christ, the opposite must be true as well. When followers of Christ cannot get along with one other and have conflicts it prevents the world from believing in Christ.
There is a powerful confession of faith that came out of South Africa in 1982 during the years of apartheid called the Belhar Confession. It was named after a South African city where it was first adopted. At that time, racial separation made it impossible for Christ followers to worship or celebrate communion together. The statement focused on three themes – unity, reconciliation and justice. Gradually churches around the world recognized the power and theological insight of Belhar as an expression of Scriptural truth.
Let me quote a segment of the Belhar Confession regarding church unity:
• that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22);
• that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain (Eph. 4:1-16);
• that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted (John 17:20-23);
• that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity (Phil. 2:1-5; 1 Cor. 12:4-31; John 13:1-17; 1 Cor. 1:10-13; Eph. 4:1-6; Eph. 3:14-20; 1 Cor. 10:16-17; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; Gal. 6:2; 2 Cor. 1:3-4);
• that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; Eph. 4:7-13; Gal. 3:27-28; James 2:1-13);
• that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church.
Christian unity is both relational and doctrinal. We need to be proactive in maintaining unity and this is done through building relationships with one another in the fellowship. It is also doctrinal in that our unity is based on a genuine faith in Jesus Christ and through that faith we are reconciled with God and each other.
My prayer is that as a Christians, we will work hard to maintain the unity that Christ has given us. We must stick together because we want the world to know that Jesus is the one sent by God to reconcile us to himself and one another. Unity must be one of our top priorities so “that the world may believe”. The bible promises that when we are united the blessings of God will flow (Psalm 133). So, let us lay aside our personal preferences, prejudices and agendas which cause division in order to embrace the diversity that exists within the Christian community where there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female” because we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3: 28)
Do you believe in coincidences? I do but for me a coincidence can be a God-incident. On Thursday, two things happened which got me thinking how a coincidence becomes a God-incident.
I woke up on Thursday morning with an old Christian chorus going on in my mind. (Click the image below to here the song)
This song is from Lamentations 3: 22-23. It’s an amazing song to wake up to as it talks about how this unchanging immovable love of the Lord is limitless; it never runs out, nor comes to an end. Every morning we can experience it anew. Like most people, I went to bed with some concerns and I went to sleep praying about these concerns. To wake up with that song of God’s steadfast love playing over and over in my mind was a reminder that God knows and understands everything.
It’s the love that never ends!
I opened my Bible to read Lamentations 3. Just before the author (traditionally believed to be the prophet Jeremiah) wrote about the steadfast love of the Lord, he says, “Peace has been stripped away, and I have forgotten what prosperity is. I cry out, ‘My splendour is gone! Everything I had hoped for from the LORD is lost!’ The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this…” (Lamentations 3: 17-21)
He then goes on to mention what he remembers, “The faithful love of the LORD never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning.” (Lamentations 3: 22-23)
The writer of Lamentations had lost his peace. He was in anguish as he grieved over things he had lost. It would have been so easy for him to give up hope yet he resisted the urge to enter into hopelessness by remembering that God’s love and mercies never run out and despite what he was going through, God’s promises remain true and he can cling on to them.
This reminded me of a song that was sung by Lamb Chops (Remember Shari Lewis?). Click the image if you want to have this song going on in your head for the rest of the day.
Well for me, I was reminded that God’s love is the love that never ends, yes it goes on and on my friend…
Anyway, later in the afternoon I went to pick up a coffee at Starbucks and sitting outside was a mum and her 2 little kids. And what were the 2 kids singing?
God does have a sense of humour. He was reminding me that his love is a love that never ends. It goes on and on. When the trials of life beat us down to the extent that we just cannot see beyond our problems and we begin to lose sight of hope because our fears and anxieties are in the way, this is the time to remind ourselves that God’s love is a love that never ends. He has been there for us in the past and he will be there for us in the future. But most important of all, He is also there for us in this present moment.
So, when you are weary and feeling down, how about singing about God’s steadfast love that never ends.
God’s love to us it never ends; yes, it goes on and on my friend.
God’s people started singing it, because they know His love,
And they’ll continue singing it forever just because…
God’s love to us it never ends; yes, it goes on and on my friend.
God’s people started singing it, because they know His love,
And they’ll continue singing it forever just because…
I am presently away on holiday in Singapore. My main reason for going to Singapore was to celebrate my aunt’s 89th birthday and to also help create a memorial with my uncle’s ashes. My aunt and I had a conversation a month or so ago about what she wanted to do with my uncle’s ashes which she had been keeping in her home. As we chatted, we came up with the idea that we would mix my uncle’s ashes with soil and then put the mix in a pot and place a plant in it.
So, on Wednesday morning, I mixed some potting mix with my uncle’s ashes and placed it in a pot and placed a plant called “Fortune Plant” in the pot. The Fortune Plant is used by the Chinese in Singapore to bring good fortune into the home. But for me the plant symbolised the good fortune and blessing my uncle brought into the lives of people he came across. He not only worked as a counsellor and an advocate for people with disabilities in Singapore, he also founded the Disabled People International (DPI) and was its first International President.
To end the service, I played an old hymn that my Uncle Ron loved. The hymn was called “O Love that will not let me go” and it was written by George Matheson who was blind. My uncle, who himself was blind found this hymn very inspiring and got hope from this hymn when he was coming to terms with his blindness. Likewise, George Matheson suffered severe setbacks in his life – the loss of his eyesight and the loss of his fiancée who decided to leave him because she could not bear the thought of marrying a blind man. He wrote this hymn in the 19th century on the day that one of his sisters was getting married. In his journal he wrote about a “most severe mental suffering” he was going through. Matheson did not say what caused this severe mental pain but people who knew his background strongly suspect that it had to do with a heart-breaking experience several years earlier when his fiancee broke her engagement to him. Matheson never married and it seems likely that his sister’s wedding brought to memory the woman that he had loved and the wedding that he had never enjoyed. At any rate, Matheson’s “severe mental suffering” inspired him to write this hymn, “O Love that Wilt Not Let Me Go.” The hymn celebrates the constancy of God’s love.
O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
O cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
My uncle found solace in this hymn because in it he was reminded that God’s love will never let him go despite all the adversities he faced due to his blindness. He believed that God’s love would not let him go and that God’s light would follow him all his way seeking him through his pain. This faith made a great difference in my uncles life.
As I closed the service, I felt that the memorial plant was more than just a memorial to my uncle. Rather, it was a memorial of the God whom my uncle followed, whose love will never let us go and pursues us remaining faithful throughout our lives. As Christians, we are a “memorial people” because our faith depends upon remembering the past and what God did for us through Christ Jesus. Instead of a memorial plant we have the cross. The memorial of the cross gives us hope and strength to face both the present and the future. As I remember the cross, I am reminded that no matter what we are going through at this present moment, we can know that God’s love will always be there, pursuing us and never letting us go.