Monthly Archives: August 2011

Out of town for the week

Just to let you know not to expect anything until next weekend 🙂

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The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson

I have held off from writing this review for a while, because I simply cannot find words that do justice to the deep impression this book series has left on my life. And the fourth and final book hasn’t even been written!

There is a power in ‘fairy tales’ that is seldom recognised by people today. Our society prides itself so much on pragmatism and science that it has neglected the importance of beauty and arts to the full flourishing of man. C.S. Lewis gives us a remarkable insight into the power of stories.

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which paralyzed much of my own religion since childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But suppose casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past the watchful dragons? I thought one could.

There are two elements to a good story – truth and beauty. There are many beautiful stories that make falsehoods appealing, and truth-packed stories that are horribly written and do not engage the heart and imagination, but few that are full of truth and beauty. This series is one of the rare few, in the vein of a Narnia or Lord of the Rings. In fact, I would elevate this series above them. It avoids the complexity of Tolkien and the occasional artificiality of Lewis. At this point, Narnia fans would probably slam me, and I will not try to explain myself. Some of the plot points felt contrived in Narnia; you might think the same when you read the Wingfeather Saga – to each his own.

So in no particular order, here are some reasons why you should purchase these books:

1. The plot is engaging and well-paced. Peterson has a knack for spinning a good tale that draws you in and never leaves you feeling bored. I’ve read each of the books in one sitting till the wee hours of the morning, simply because I could not put them down for a moment.

2. While the story is set in a fantasy world, the characters are as real to life as you can get. Peterson has a gift for conveying the emotions and thoughts of his characters to the readers, and at many points in the story I could not help but identify with the joys and struggles of our protagonists.

3. His fantasy world is realistic, in that it captures the darkness of the fallen world we all live in. In his own words, “[the storyteller] has to acknowledge that sometimes when the hall light goes out and the bedroom goes dark, the world is a scary place. He has to nod his head to the presence of all the sadness in the world; children know it’s there from a very young age, and I wonder sometimes if that’s why babies cry. He has to admit that sometimes characters make bad choices, because every child has seen their parent angry or irritable or deceitful–even the best people in our lives are capable of evil.”

4. “But of course the storyteller can’t stop there. He has to show in the end there is a Great Good in the world (and beyond it). Sometimes it is necessary to paint the sky black in order to show how beautiful is the prick of light. Gather all the wickedness in the universe into its loudest shriek and God hears it as a squeak at best. And that is a comforting thought. When a child reads the last sentence of my stories, I hope he or she drifts to sleep with a glow in their hearts and a warmth in their bones, believing that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Though I wouldn’t classify myself as a child, I definitely did drift to sleep with a glow in my heart and warmth in my bones.

5. It has been of great help to me in comprehending some Christian truths that I have been wrestling with for a while. In particular, how do you persevere in your fight against sin? The third book in the series has helped me more than any other book in dealing with sin on a daily basis. It stole past the watchful dragons in my heart, and taught me that remembering who we are in Christ is insufficient if we are to triumph over shame and guilt and sin. We must also have a real sense of his love towards us.

You know a book has left a substantial impression on you when you are still trying to dig down into the deeper, Christian layers of meaning weeks after you’ve finished reading them.

6. I’d always wanted to write a book series like this since I was 12. I’m afraid I’ll have to shelve that dream for a long while. Any book I write which will eventually see the light of day will need to live up to the standard of this book. The likelihood of that happening is practically zero.

7. You know that you love a book (series) when you’re trying to find a seventh reason for why other people should read it and this is the best you can come up with – I love these books! Enough said.

So go buy them  today. The names of the books themselves (in order) are On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, North! Or Be Eaten and The Monster in the Hollows. If you are in Malaysia, your best bet is to order it from The Book Depository. Elsewhere, Amazon might also be an option. The first two books are available on the Kindle. Finally, if you’re in the US, you can also order them directly from the author’s own publishing company, The Rabbit Room.

Let’s hope he starts working on that fourth book soon. Otherwise there might be people cursing me for starting them on this series too soon.

Freedom exercised in love

If you were absolutely free to do whatever pleases you, how would you exercise your freedom?

I think that the answer each of us gives to this question is helpful in illuminating the desires that lie at the very heart of our being. It helps to expose who or what functionally sits enthroned at the center of our lives, the object or subject around which our whole world revolves.

What would my answer be? To be frank, it exposes a dark, shameful side of me that I would not want anyone to know about. To this day, I don’t think I’ll ever be fully prepared or even comfortable with confessing the full extent of my struggle to another person. My gut-feeling on this is that I’m the norm, rather than the exception. We all have deep, dark secret sins and shames that we don’t want exposed to others. To compound my shame, I am aware that I am very much responsible for my darkest sins. There was no unintentional decline into sin. I chose it. I embraced it. There are no excuses.

We are corrupted to the core. Our desires are corrupted and fallen. And they manifest themselves in sinful choices. Sometimes these leave visible scars that many can see, with the guilt and shame of it all hanging like heavy, dark clouds over us. More often than not, the scars are invisible, and our struggle with the guilt and shame of it all is internal.

For those in Christ, the struggle can be intensified. Though we are reminded over and over again of who we are – that is, that we have been adopted as children of God, and that new life runs through our veins, enabling us to live up to our true identity as children of a holy Father – it does nothing to help us. We already know these things, and we appreciate these truths, and yet they still do not aid us in our struggle with the guilt and shame of our sins. And so we push on dutifully as Christians. Though there are genuine moments of true delight in our calling and identity, the dark clouds of guilt and shame continue to rumble overhead and cast a deep and pervasive gloom over our lives.

To those of you who identify with what I’ve written above, I hope you open your heart to listen to what God has to say to one like you:

I love you.

I loved you before the foundation of the world. I loved you before you were conceived. I loved you as you were knitted together in your mother’s womb. I loved you the day you were delivered into this world. I loved you as you took your first steps. I loved you before you could even utter a word. I loved you as you grew up.

And I loved you even when you turned your back on me. I loved you even as you descended into the dark pit of your sin. I loved you when your guilt and shame hung like dark clouds over your soul.

And so I loved you by sending my Son Jesus. I loved you when He died for you on the cross. He loved you by bearing all your guilt and shame there. I loved you when I accepted his sacrifice and forgave all your sins against me. They are removed from me as far as the east is from the west. I loved you when I adopted you as my child.

I love you now in the glory of your humility, with all your scars and struggles with your guilt and shame. I love you as you try to please me. I love you even when your best attempts to do so fall short. I will love you no matter what happens to you in this life. I will always love you in life and in death, till the end of days and for all eternity.

Why – you may ask – why set your love on such a miserable creature like me?

Because I want to. My love is freely given. I love you because I love you. Even though you were the unloveliest thing in the universe, even when you were still my enemy, I loved you. If you have any doubt, then remember that while you were my enemy, I gave you the most precious thing to me in all the universe – my Son.

So you never need to fear losing my love, because it is given out of my own free will, and not in the least for any quality I see in you. If you have any further doubt that I might change my mind, remember this: if I have given you the one who is most precious to me, why will I hold anything else back? In fact, in giving you my Son, I have given along with him all things.

Do you understand why and how much I love you, my child?

I’m afraid I don’t fully understand it still.

A good and honest answer. Then do you believe I love you?

Yes.

God’s answer to the question I posed at the start is this: I am absolutely free to do whatever I please to do, and I have freely chosen to set my love on you. While we would exercise our freedom for sinful and selfish ends, he has always exercised his freedom in love to us, from eternity past to eternity future. We are chosen, called, made right, forgiven, reconciled, adopted as his children and will share in God’s glory. And so in the present, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Are you struggling with guilt and shame? Then know that God has always loved you, loves you now, and will always love you – not because of who you were, are or will be, but because of who he is. He doesn’t ask that you first fully understand his love. God’s first and most important question to you is whether you believe that he loves you. If you do, then come to him today and find the rest you seek in his loving arms.

Psalm 8: Small, but not insignificant

O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.

Physically speaking, there is nothing above the heavens. The heavens are the limit. To say that God has set his glory above the heavens is the closest we can come to describing the transcendence of God’s majesty, and even then our best words fall short. God’s glory is a weight that needs to be both seen and felt.

It can be seen when we look at the heavens, the moon and the stars. The universe we live in is vast. At last count, our observable universe is a sphere with a radius of 46 billion light years. There are more than 100 billion observable galaxies, containing an estimated 3×1023 stars. When you consider that the size of our Sun, which is very much bigger than our planet, is lower than the average star size, that last number becomes pretty unimaginable. In short we were made to feel small, so that we might have an inkling of the weight of God’s majesty.

But it does not naturally follow that we are insignificant. This surprise is echoed by the Psalmist –  “what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? (v.4)” Though we are small in comparison to the majesty of the universe, and the greater majesty of the Creator of the universe,  our Creator is mindful of us. He is not merely mindful in the way we would be mindful of unnecessarily offending a stranger with our actions, but he is mindful of us as a father is mindful of the well-being of his children. It is a strange wonder that man enjoys a privileged position in God’s universe. We are “crowned with glory and honour (v.5)” and “given dominion over the works of his hands (v.6)”.

This was God’s design for man from the beginning. Yet the first Adam failed to live up to his privilege and calling. He rebelled against God, rejecting the glory that was his to have, and lost all claims to the mindfulness of God. All of us are descended from him and so we have all similarly fallen short of God’s glory. But God’s designs are not thwarted. From the midst of sin and failure, greater glory and greater good would emerge. Jesus Christ came as the second Adam to do what the first Adam could not, namely live up to the privilege and calling of man to give glory to God. Not only that, his death would also bring many sons to glory. By virtue of his God-glorifying life and death, Jesus alone deserves the crown of glory and honour (Heb 2: 9-10).

But don’t miss the good news. The death of Jesus was designed to bring many sons to glory. We have all fallen short of God’s glory, and only deserve his wrath. Yet in love, he has made a way for glory to be restored to us. The way is Jesus, and he has promised us the gift of himself and all the blessings he has secured for us if we would gladly receive him. If you’re skeptical about the deal here, here’s another thought for you to ponder. Our trust in people rises and fall with the moral quality of their character. Now is there any one whose character is more trustworthy than Jesus?

Unanticipated delays

I realise Psalm 8’s running a bit late. I haven’t had time to write it yet, with today being a little busier than I had anticipated. I promise to have it up by tomorrow.

I also missed last Friday’s post. Again, I was too busy to finish writing it. I will complete that this week and post it up on Friday.

Psalm 7: The Righteousness of God in the Suicide of Evil

God is a righteous judge,
and a God who feels indignation every day. (v.11)

Righteousness is an unfamiliar term to modern ears. When it is used, it is often accompanied with sarcastic overtones to disparagingly describe a person with a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude. This sort of baggage means that the word is often lost in translation. Yet Scripture resounds with the truth of the righteousness of God. As such, if we are to know God truly, it is necessary for us to recover a biblical understanding of the righteousness of God.

What does it mean for God to be righteous? The righteousness of God is an elusively difficult attribute to define. There is an element of judging in strict accordance with a moral standard. There is an element of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people, in which he remains true to his promises. But it seems to me that Piper hits the nail on the head with his definition: his absolute faithfulness always to act for his own name’s sake and for the preservation and display of his glory.

Yes, there is a judgment in strict accordance with a moral standard. But the moral standard does not stand apart from God, as if God is bound to external standards. The moral standard by which God judges the world is the standard of his glory. The indignation he feels every day is when his glory is not honoured as it ought to be, and people willingly exchange his glory for lesser things. God’s righteousness demands justice be served, yet he also makes a covenant with his people, promising an unbroken relationship with them. How can God be faithful to his covenant and to the honour of his name? The tension is clearly resolved in Romans 3:21-26. In and through Jesus, God’s glory is upheld and his people are brought back into relationship with him

But we are not in Romans 3 yet. Coming back to Psalm 7, God is called the righteous judge. Part of what it means for him to be a judge is seen in verse 12. “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword.” The psalmist understands that repentance is the means by which the punishment of God is averted. How can repentance feasibly cover the debt of life we owe to God? Already, there is an anticipation of the day that God sends his Son to die for the sins of the world.

For those who do not repent, God will prepare his deadly weapons (v.13). What are these deadly weapons? Interestingly, the psalmist points out that God has designed the world in such a way that evil always commits suicide. The wicked man always falls into the pit he has dug for others, and his mischief and violence always rebound on his own head. This does not convey the totality of eternal punishment, yet God in his wisdom has deemed it fitting to display the folly of evil by its inability to accomplish its own ends. The great irony of wickedness is that all acts of evil, while evil in themselves, always resolve into some greater good. Evil ultimately defeats itself.

The wisdom of God and the foolishness of evil are seen most brilliantly in the cross of Christ. There, Jesus “was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, to be crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.(Acts 2:23)” The greatest act of evil history will ever witness was committed that day. The most precious being in the universe, namely the Son of God, would suffer the ignominy of death. Yet this happened according to the plan of God, for he had planned to display his righteousness at the cross. Satan sought to deal a deathly blow to the incarnate glory of God, but in doing so committed suicide. For only through death could Jesus destroy the one who holds the power of death, and so ransom a people for himself who will sing his praises throughout all eternity:

I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness,
and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High. (v.17)

The stink of entitlement

There is a stink that permeates our political discourse these days. It is the stink of entitlement.

From rioting in Athens and ballooning budget deficits in the US over welfare benefits, to the ingrained institution of positive racial discrimination policies in countries like Malaysia and South Africa, there is an increasingly blurred distinction between the ideals of privilege and entitlement.

What is the key distinction? The privileged owes a debt of gratitude to a benefactor. The entitled is owed a debt. The fundamental positions of the two result in very different responses. The privileged has responsibilities to fulfill. The entitled is free to live off his debtors.

Christians ought to understand this principle more than anyone else. Luke 12:48 states that “everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” The gospel that gives us all that we need for life and much more demands that we give to others in accordance with the measure of grace that has been given to us.

We should never confuse this with a gospel of works. The latter does not earn the former. The former is freely and graciously given to us through Jesus Christ. The latter is the only plausible response to the overwhelming gift of grace. When we forget the order of things, privilege sours into entitlement. We think that we deserve the gifts of God because of the things we have done for him. That will never ever be true. God is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:25)

Now the problem is that the sinfulness of our hearts makes it extremely difficult to understand the idea of privilege. The self-centeredness of a heart enslaved by sin sours every privilege into entitlement. We experience this in our relationships, where we can feel that we are entitled to the friendship of others because of the service we have rendered to them. Yet this sense of entitlement ruins the very nature of friendship. True friendship is held together by the bonds of privilege, where we count it all joy to be able to count others as our friends.

The problems we see on the level of the individual is magnified in our societies. What happens in a democracy when everyone considers themselves as the entitled? First, it means you have to create a class of debtors. Second, the debtors will want to migrate to the camp of the entitled. No one is foolish enough to work hard that others may enjoy the fruit of his labour. This leaves us with a glaring problem. The entitled need sufficient debtors to fund a certain lifestyle, so what happens when there are insufficient debtors?

There are two ways to go about this. One, you stop people from migrating between the camps. We see this in positive racial discrimination policies. Two, you select debtors who are unable to migrate between the camps. We see this when governments borrow excessively with the expectation that the next generation will pay off the debts of this generation. Since the unborn have no voice, the problem is put off for yet another generation.

Social harmony cannot exist when society is divided along lines of entitlement. A social contract in which one party does all the work and the other enjoys the rewards is economically and socially unsustainable. With a degree of foresight, most societies will choose option number two, since the unborn cannot protest. Yet this does not resolve problems of economic unsustainability. It only serves to highlight the extent of our selfishness, that we are willing to sacrifice our children and the children of others on the altar of material gain.

What can we do to stop the inevitable slide of a social contract built on entitlement? We need to recover the idea of privilege. Take for example the Bumi policies in Malaysia. I don’t really have a problem with the government trying to help the Bumis to move up the economic ladder. My worry is that the privileges they have been given has soured into entitlements. As such, there is no incentive on their part to fulfill their responsibilities to society, since in their eyes, such responsibilities do not exist. There is a need to recover the biblical principle that to him who has been given much, much is required.

Nevertheless, the problem remains that the sinful heart will find it indubitably difficult to live by that principle.