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The operating theatre was freezing cold, and as my naked body lay on the hard table, I couldn’t help but shake violently. There were about ten doctors and nurses around me, but communication wasn’t possible due to my missing Korean. On Thursday, 3 April 2014, at 2 pm, the operation began. It had been the year when cancer visited my family. My mum was first to discover a lump in her breast which was diagnosed as localized breast cancer. With admirable faith and strength my mother went through a full mastectomy followed by chemo therapy. When her hair fell out, she started wearing a wig, like many women with the same fate. As she was recovering, my sister’s breasts had to be removed due to the same diagnosis, but the growth had spread in her case, affecting her liver. Anja didn’t cope so well with the illness; she blamed God or my parents, then followed the questionable advice of her homeopath who had suggested to stop the chemotherapy. When my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer, it seemed manageable. But after a radical prostatectomy, his incontinence didn’t seem to go away, gravely affecting his charity work and quality of life. A severe stomach ache led to the discovery of colon cancer in May 2013, and six weeks later he was dead. My sister Anja came to his funeral in mid July and already looked very weak. She died four weeks later. So when a company physical revealed a slightly high PSA value in January 2014, I was fearing for the worst. A few tests later, it was confirmed: prostate cancer. So here I was, in the cold operating theatre in a foreign land, on April 3, 2014, about to be inserted with a few hundred radioactive seeds in a process called brachytherapy. These are supposed to radiate from within and destroy the cancerous cells in my
prostate, and hopefully not much more. I had gone into surgery outwardly calm and confident, and had posed for a final photograph by the accompanying nurse outside the theatre, with a somewhat tentative smile on my face. But as I lay on that cold table, paralyzed from the waist down by an epidural, my view limited by a white cloth, with only the curiously old fashioned wall clock counting down every minute of these painfully slow 2 1/2 hours, the doctors busy placing the titanium covered radioactive seeds – I was afraid. So I started praying to Jesus: thoughts of thanksgiving for my life and the past 52 years, for making this high tech procedure possible, and questions, many questions. Why is this happening to me? Why am I in Korea? And if
this procedure were to cure the cancer, what was I to do with the rest of my life? I closed my eyes, and away from the bright glare of the operating lights, the muffled instructions in Korean, I saw a picture: I saw sunshine, then the countryside, and what looked like a high tech farm. There were solar panels on the roof, and young people, male and female, of different ethnicities, working together, smiling, singing. I somehow moved closer: there were cows being milked, eggs from noisy hens collected, the smell of freshly baked bread and coffee hung in the air. Inside the bright, airy, modern rooms were iMacs with people blogging and sharing pictures of their communal life. I saw couples, gay and straight, working together, illustrating Christian websites, cooking meals, packing homemade honey glasses into boxes. There was a gym where people worked out, right next to a yoga class and a spa. The place radiated a spirit of calm and happiness, of healing. And it felt like this wasn’t the only commune of this kind, with people coming and going. “Only 10 minute”, a voice right next to my ear whispered, and I opened my eyes. Behind the mask I saw the smiling eyes of a nurse – and I smiled back, for my questions to Jesus had just been answered.
But more about that later.
Today, I want to explore three questions with you:
1. Where do I live?
2. How do I live?
3. What should I do?
1. Where do I live?
In order to answer that, we need to have a good hard look at the world, our societies that we live it.
And here’s the first problem: to see. In the movie “Vanilla Sky”, which is quite a confusing film if you ask me, Tom Cruise has an alarm clock that says, with the voice of Penelope Cruz, “Open your eyes, open your eyes”. Often we only see what we want to see. We look at the past, we cannot look beyond our own limitations. In one of the lectionary readings for today, from Acts 2, Jesus walks with some of his disciples to Emmaus. But “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” – they kept looking at the past, even told him about Jesus, saying “We had hoped he was the one”.
So if we open our eyes and look at the world, we see some strange things:
– Religious leaders are blessing weapons – but Jesus said
“blessed are the peacemakers”
– Churches sell the “Prosperity Gospel” (if you have enough
faith, God will make you rich) – but Jesus said “blessed are the poor”
A preacher named Ray Stedman traveled across the country for a week of meetings. The only problem was, his baggage didn’t make it. He needed a couple of suits so he went down to the local thrift shop. When he told the salesman, “I’d like to get a couple of suits,” the man smiled, led him to a whole rack of them and said, “Good, we’ve got several. But you need to know they came from the local mortuary. They’ve all been cleaned and pressed, but they were used on dead bodies. Not a thing wrong with them. I just didn’t want that to bother you.”
Stedman said, “No, that’s fine.” He tried a few of the suits on and finally bought two of them for about $25 dollars each. When he got back to this his room, he began to get dressed for the evening’s meetings. As he put one on, he tried to put his hands in the pockets, but couldn’t. Both sides were all sewn up! The suits looked as if they had pockets, but they were just flaps on the coat. He thought about that for a second. “Of course! Dead people don’t carry stuff with them when they die.”
He later admitted: “I spent all week trying to stick my hands in my pockets. I had to hang my keys on my belt.” (Charles R. Swindoll, “Living Above The Level of Mediocrity”)
– Society encourages and rewards egoism, greed and pride – but Jesus said “blessed are the meek”
Robert Roberts writes about a fourth grade class in which the teacher introduced a game called “balloon stomp.” A balloon was tied to every child’s leg, and the object of the game was to pop everyone else’s balloon while protecting one’s own. The last person with an intact balloon would win.
The fourth graders in Roberts’ story entered into the spirit of the game with vigor. Balloons were relentlessly targeted and destroyed. A few of the children clung to the sidelines like wallflowers at a middle school dance, but their balloons were doomed just the same. The entire battle was over in a matter of seconds, leaving only one balloon inflated. Its owner was, of course, the most disliked kid in the class. It’s hard to really win at a game like balloon stomp. In order to complete your mission, you have to be pushy, rude and offensive.
Roberts goes on to write that a second class was introduced to the same game. Only this time it was a class of mentally handicapped children. They were given the same explanation as the first class, and the signal to begin was given. But the game proceeded very differently. Perhaps the instructions were given too quickly for children with learning disabilities to grasp them. The one idea that got through was that the balloons were supposed to be popped. So it was the balloons, not the other players, that were viewed as enemies. Instead of fighting each other, they began helping each other pop
balloons. One little girl knelt down and held her balloon carefully in place, like a holder for a field goal kicker. A little boy stomped it flat. Then he knelt down and held his balloon for her. It went on like this for several minutes until all the balloons were vanquished, and everybody cheered. Everybody won.
It’s almost like the way we live and what the Bible tells us are complete opposites – the world has its values upside down.
OK, you say, I know, but that’s the way it is. What’s that to do with me, and what can I change?
Well, you can change your own life.
2. How do I live?
I don’t know about other preachers, but when I think and pray about a message to give in church, the thoughts I find (or that find me), are mostly messages to myself. And I am sharing them in the hope that they apply to some of you, too.
So how do I live my life?
– I love things.
Part of it is an occupational hazard (or is that an excuse?) since I work, and have always worked, in marketing and branding. I love good suits, and watches, champagne and big cars. I love business class travel and having a high frequent traveler status. The thing is: there’s nothing wrong per se with having a few nice quality things. But it’s what I get out of them, how I use them to make a statement. We talk a lot about status symbols. That’s when it gets tricky – when we use the things we have to signal: I’m better/more successful/more clever than you. And also: Wouldn’t the money, at least part of the money, be better spent on outreach, on evangelism, on helping the needy?
– I don’t have time.
I’m always rushing – from the office to the gym, home, to meetings, to the airport. Cars, taxis, trains, airplanes. I’m the first on and off the plane, I run for the little train between terminals in Incheon in order not to have to queue too long for immigration. The thing is: there’s nothing wrong per se with having a tight schedule. But I’m wondering – am I spending enough time with people, my friends, colleagues, strangers, to listen and to get to know them?
This week I read a story about a pastor traveling with a Brazilian seminary student. Along the way the pastor asked the student if he would like to stop for a cup of coffee. The student said, “I would be honored.” So he swung into a Starbucks, went through the drive-thru.
Once on their way the student was very quiet and when pressed about his silence he said, “I thought you were asking me to be your friend. I thought we were going to sit together and share life.”
(From a sermon by Monty Newton, The Making of a Compelling Christian Community, 8/24/2012)
– I crave attention and affirmation by others
A requirement of my job is that I am the face of the brand I work for. (Or is that an excuse?) So ever since I’ve moved to Seoul, I’ve given interviews, been made up and dressed for photoshoots – a seamless continuation from working with Channel NewsAsia here in Singapore. And if I’m really honest, I have to admit: I love the attention. I like being recognized by people I meet, or being asked to take a picture with strangers. What’s that about? Worst case, it’s a form of pride, best case, I am getting affirmation of who I am from the attention of strangers, journalists, my team, my boss. Why do I need this? Is the affirmation that I get from Jesus not enough? Isn’t His love worth much more – and longer lasting – than all I can receive here on Earth?
The truth is: I am very much living in this world. And to a certain extent OF this world – bound by its promises and the pleasures it can bring.
But if I read my Bible correctly I don’t really belong here. In Psalm 116, part of today’s lectionary readings, it says: “Lord, I am your servant. You have cut my bonds.”
Cut my bonds. Cut my dependency on people’s appreciation and acclaim, cut my entanglement in meaningless things.
In 1 Peter it says “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”
That’s the difference: the admiration of others, the satisfaction of owning things – they are perishable. Like with the sewn-up pockets, they will fall away, they won’t stay with us.
Maybe it really is time for Basic Necessities. The Word of God – it is Life, it is imperishable and enduring. A much better ground to get my affirmation from. “Our citizenship”, like it says in Phil 3:20, “is in heaven.”
3. What should I do?
In our lectionary text for today, from Acts 2, Peter gives some very straight forward advice:
Be baptized in the name of Jesus that your sins may be forgiven.
And he goes on by saying:
“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
Now there’s some no-nonsense advice for us. Seems like ours is not the first generation that is corrupt. Seems like Christians were always in conflict with authority, always challenging the status quo.
Jesus had a handful of people, no cash, no buildings.
How does that compare to some of the churches here in Singapore today?
“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
What does it mean?
A first, easy start is probably to emulate the early disciples in going out and sharing the gospel, the good news. That’s why I’ve been wondering whether instead of talking to believers in FCC, this message should instead be preached in Shenton Way. Or on the MRT.
Oh no, you think, that wouldn’t be possible. It’s illegal, and even if it wasn’t, people don’t like to listen, they don’t like to be talked to.
Well, Singapore is not the US, but I read about an interesting experiment that two scientists did on the Chicago subway:
The behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder approached commuters in a Chicago area train station and asked them to break the rules. In return for a $5 Starbucks gift card, these commuters agreed to participate in a simple experiment during their train ride. One group was asked to talk to the stranger who sat down next to them on the train that morning. Other people were told to follow standard commuter norms, keeping to themselves. By the end of the train ride, commuters who talked to a stranger reported having a more positive experience than those who had sat in solitude.
If the idea of talking to a random seatmate fills you with dread, you’re not alone. When Dr. Epley and Ms. Schroeder asked other people in the same train station to predict how they would feel after talking to a stranger, the commuters thought their ride would be more pleasant if they sat on their own. Why are these commuters’ predictions and their experiences so at odds? Most people imagined it would be difficult to start a conversation. They estimated that fewer than half of their fellow commuters would want to talk to them. But in fact, not a single person reported having been snubbed. And the conversations were consistently pleasant.
So maybe people are more open to a positive, affirming message than we think.
But is that enough? Well, maybe not. And here’s where my vision from the operating table in the Seoul hospital comes in.
Three days later I sat down and thought about how – if I wanted to make such a community happen – it would look like and what would be some of the ground rules.
So here are 12 thoughts about a new community:
1 A new community would primarily be about radical love – sharing the love of Jesus that excludes no one, in word and deed.
2 It’s followers would live in community – modern communes where they share all things.
3 They would be open to technology and active on all social media platforms, using them to share the message and their lives.
4 They’d be in respect of the Earth, probably vegetarian, running small modern, solar-powered farms where they’d produce clean and healthy food for their own needs and some for sale.
5 They’d be conscious of their bodies being gifts and temples and keep them healthy in their own gyms, refrain from smoking and drugs and limit their alcohol intake.
6 They’d be blind to colour, nationality, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and not interested in people’s sex lives within the framework of love and consent.
7 Their local communes would be democratic in choosing their own leadership and looking after their own funds.
8 They’d take the Bible as a guideline for outreach and communal living, fully aware that it was written down by people in different times and cultural circumstances.
9 They’d share the Gospel not as a threat but as a friendly invitation, respecting other faiths, and convincing more by deed than by word.
10 Like Jesus, they’d reach out to people in need, giving them shelter, support, food and medical attention.
11 The community would be mindful of its origins in Asia and incorporate meditation, yoga and spa techniques in its communes.
12 They would not work in isolation but be open to working with allies across religious or ideological divides when serving a common goal.
Will it happen? I don’t know.
Do you have to give up your job and life to move in? I don’t know, it’s up to you.
But maybe we can look at the spirit of the early church, the first Christians, and the way they ‘did life’ together, having all things in common: “Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as