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When we were first planning this series, Gary had suggested that I take the topic on ‘Identity’ and he will do the topic on ‘Theological Frameworks’. So typically Pauline and Gary, right? 🙂 And wait till you see what Miak has in store. But about a month ago, Gary messaged me and said he thought it might be interesting for us to switch topics. He said he was curious to hear my approach to theological frameworks from my “conservative” background. It didn’t take me much time to consider and I agreed immediately because I think the switch would challenge us in different ways and it would be interesting to see what comes up. And if you were here last Sunday for Gary’s sermon, I’m sure you were blessed greatly in some way. I heard a lot of good feedback from various people, ranging from an agnostic to a first-time visitor to long-time members. I asked them if they would share their feedback directly with Gary because it’s important for preachers to hear both the good and the constructive feedback. Yes, that means you are very welcome to share your feedback with me too. And if you have not caught his sermon, you can find the video on the FCC website.
So what comes to your mind when you hear the words “theological frameworks”? When the list of sermon topics was first sent out to the church mailing list, a number of people came to ask me, “Theological frameworks? What does that mean? What will you be preaching on?” I could sense that the question came partly from curiosity and partly from ambivalence. 🙂 For some people, theology is exciting, deep, constantly evolving and challenging. And if you are one of those people, good for you! For others, when they hear the word “theology”, their eyes glaze over and they assume it’s going to be a boring and stuffy intellectual discussion about the study of God, and the only image they have in their minds are musty volumes of books in the libraries of seminaries and theological colleges. Is that what crosses your mind when you hear the word “theology”? It’s alright if it is because if you look up the definition of “theology” on Google, that image is actually pretty close.
But what I want to tell you today is that theology is so much more than the intellectual study of God. The true definition of theology is more basic and at the same time, much bigger than we think. Theology is actually how we understand or make sense of God — it is how we see God, and how we think God sees us and the world. So let me tell you a secret. You may not be aware of it but you have a living theology within you right now — an understanding of God that you carry around with you in your daily life. Your perception of God — who God is, how God sees you, how God sees us, what God wants from us, what God wants for us — affects and influences us more than we know. It affects the way we see ourselves. It affects our sense of meaning and purpose. It affects our relationships with others. It affects how we understand pain and suffering. It affects our daily decisions and choices.
Over the past year, I’ve talked with a number of people in FCC about their theology and some mentioned having done the Theological Worlds Inventory. Some of them found it helpful so I went to do the survey and read up a little about it. This inventory can be helpful to some of us as we try to understand the way we relate to God. For me personally, I found the categorization of theological worlds to be a little limiting and they didn’t fully express my current theological world. So I decided to come up with my own list. 🙂 The more I interact with the different perspectives people have of God and the world, the more I realize the importance of simplicity. Not simple-mindedness but simplicity. Going back to the basics has helped me to stay grounded in the midst of evolving and growing. At the same time, simplicity creates space so that I can keep my mind open to the many different understandings and experiences that people have with regards to faith and spirituality. In our drive for knowledge and progress, we sometimes come up with more and more complex notions and objectives. That is fine and good in and of itself. But it is perhaps then even more essential that we complement the complexity of thought with the simplicity of faith. When I say faith, I’m not just talking about an intellectual belief but one that is lived out in practice as our lives are being transformed from the inside out.
So, as I reflected on my own understandings of God and who I am in relation to God, I distilled my thoughts into the following points. Firstly, let me share a caveat. This list is my personal theological framework. It may be similar to yours in some ways or it may differ greatly from yours. Either way, we celebrate because we have much to be thankful for. To know God and be known by God, to love God and be loved by God is our deepest joy and greatest privilege as human beings. And that is something we all share regardless of our theological framework. So I offer this list to you as my own personal sharing and I encourage you to reflect on your own understandings of God and self as we go along.
1) God ‘s thoughts and ways are far higher and bigger than my human mind can conceive
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
I was a student in NUS (not too long ago 😉 when I first sensed that God might be calling me into full-time ministry. At that time, I wasn’t really sure if God was calling me so I set aside Fridays to pray and seek God specifically about my future. Amazingly, every Friday, the Bible and devotional passage would speak to me very personally about where I was investing my time, my heart, my treasure, my life. Isaiah 55 was one of those passages that really spoke to me at that time. And this particular portion where God was reminding us that God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours continued to stay with me even many years after. You know, throughout the time I was seeking God about the future, receiving confirmation regarding my calling, serving in the mission field, preparing to go to bible school, I was struggling to reconcile my sexuality with my spirituality. In my heart as I prayed and cried out to God, I somehow sensed that God was okay with me. There was a deep sense of peace that God loved and accepted me as I am. But in my mind, I still struggled because how could I know for sure when people around me were saying different things?
Finally, it was when I went to bible school that the truth of this passage from Isaiah dawned on me. In class, as we debated over the different theological positions regarding all kinds of issues, I realized that God was right all along. Our human minds are too limited to fully comprehend God’s thoughts and ways. In our minds, it usually has to be either this or that. Calvinist or Arminian? Conservative or liberal? Predestination or free will? But with God, it is often this and that. What is impossible with man is possible with God. Appreciating that God’s ways are higher than our ways was an important step towards reconciliation for me. And this tenet continues to be an important guiding principle in my life.
Even now, it helps me remember that:
(a) I’m not as smart as I think I am
(b) A lifetime will never be enough for me to know everything about God
(c) I need to keep my mind open to differences in people’s spiritual journeys, no matter where it may take them. For example, one of my best friends whom I met in bible school no longer identifies as Christian now. I’ve learnt a lot from her spiritual journey and she is still very supportive of mine. In fact, when I told her I was coming up with my own theological framework, she laughed and said, “This is your Pauline theology.”
2) God is Love
1 John 4:7-19
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. I just want you to read the Amplified Version of verses 16-19 and let it sink in.
1 John 4:16-19 (Amplified Version)
16 We have come to know [by personal observation and experience], and have believed [with deep, consistent faith] the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides continually in him. 17 In this [union and fellowship with Him], love is completed and perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment [with assurance and boldness to face Him]; because as He is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love [dread does not exist]. But perfect (complete, full-grown) love drives out fear, because fear involves [the expectation of divine] punishment, so the one who is afraid [of God’s judgment] is not perfected in love [has not grown into a sufficient understanding of God’s love]. 19 We love, because He first loved us.
I think the apostle John says it best and the words speak for themselves. Basically, when I see love, I see God.
3) God’s grace is the basis on which I stand (and from which I act)
Romans 5:1-5 (NLT)
Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace[a] with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. 2 Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of grace (undeserved privilege) where we now stand (firmly and safely and securely), and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.
3 We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5 And this hope (in God’s promises) will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.
The topic of God’s grace requires at least one whole sermon or more to address adequately but for now, perhaps it will suffice for me to say that God’s grace is the basis on which I stand in life. What I mean is this: it is purely by God’s grace that I stand in my position as a beloved child of God. It is solely by God’s grace that I am who I am — a person who is worthy of love and belonging. No one can take that away from me…or you…because God made us worthy in God’s sight. God made our relationship right with him so that we can know God deeply and personally, and be known by God deeply and personally.
I believe this grace is continually at work in my life. It didn’t just appear once to make me right with God and disappear after that. Through the Holy Spirit, God continues to transform me from the inside out so that everything I do is an outflow of the grace of God at work in my life. This means the many things I do in my life and ministry are not done out of obligation, guilt or shame. Well, at least I try my best to make sure my motivation is not obligation, guilt or shame. What I do in ministry for people, or for my family and friends, or in my volunteer work is more often an outflow of my inner life. I do them because they are important to me and I want to do them. More and more, I see how my outward actions are aligned and authentic to the person that I am.
What about you? What motivates you to be the person that you are? What motivates you to do what you do?
4) Pain, sorrow and suffering play a big role in making us who we are
I would be remiss if I didn’t include a tenet on pain, sorrow and suffering. Why? Because firstly, it has played such a big role in my life. And secondly, it is important because we all go through pain, sorrow and suffering in different ways. How do we make sense of it? We often debate about how a good God can allow suffering in this world, right? Obviously, I don’t have all the answers and it would take a much longer time to cover this discussion properly. But for now, I just want to say that in my life, I’ve seen how pain, sorrow and suffering play a big role in making me who I am. It deepens the awareness of my own wounds and highlights areas for healing, growth and the need for wholeness. It deepens my empathy and compassion, and it helps me understand my strength and resilience.
I was sharing with my cell group the other day that one of the first people I came out to was a close friend in university. At that time, she was very supportive and understanding because she understood my situation as one where I was trying to keep my sexual orientation under control. But a few years later when I told her I was in a relationship, she was very upset and pulled away from me. She almost cut all ties with me and I was heartbroken. Then a couple of years later, the relationship I was in broke down and I didn’t know who I could turn to. I couldn’t talk to my family..how would they react if they knew I was in a relationship with another girl? I was quite close to my mum and could talk to her about many things but this was one thing I couldn’t talk to her about. I couldn’t talk to my friends. The one friend whom I had confided in had cut ties with me so I feared others might do the same. I felt utterly alone. To feel utterly alone while going through a breakup is devastating. I told myself I never wanted anyone else to have to go through something like that and feel like they have no one to turn to. That and many other things that happened along the way is why I’m doing what I’m doing today. And I’m thankful I get to do what I do. So pain, sorrow and suffering can play a big role in making us who we are.
What about you? What role has pain, sorrow and suffering played in your life?
5) What God wants from us is that we love with our whole hearts
Matthew 22:36-40 (NLT)
36 “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?”
37 Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’[e] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[f] 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”
Alignment is what this greatest commandment is about: loving God with our mind, heart, soul and strength – bringing together our knowing, our being, our doing in an integrated fashion. Connectedness of the head (belief), heart (feeling), soul (being) and hand (action). And this alignment also translates into loving our neighbour as ourselves.
I’m sure many of us share the same view but this is one of the main guiding principles in my life. It guides me when I have to make hard decisions. It gives me clarity when I’m not sure if something is right or wrong, good or bad.
My goal in life is simple. It is to live and love with my whole heart. Yes, simple yet difficult. My prayer is that love will be the signature of my life. Of course I often fail so I don’t say this lightly or arrogantly. I am deeply aware of my own limitations and flaws, so I share this with you humbly and vulnerably. Love is my goal and intention but I know my efforts will sometimes be less than ideal. So please forgive me for the times when I may hurt you or say the wrong thing. Please feel free to come and talk to me and remind me that my goal is to live and love with my whole heart. Keep me accountable, as in the same way, I am happy to keep you accountable to the goals that are important to you.
6) God has a bigger plan and it is for good
I talked about this in my sermon 2 weeks ago so I will not belabor the point. But like many of you, Jeremiah 29:11 is a verse I hold on to when I can’t see the way ahead or when a situation seems precarious, uncertain or hopeless.
“For I know the plans and thoughts that I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for peace and well-being and not for disaster to give you a future and a hope.” (Ampilified Version)
Time and time again in my life, God has always proved that this promise is true. Peace and well-being, a future and hope. And I pray that it will be true for you too, especially if the way ahead seems dark and uncertain. Remember that God has you in her hands and God’s grace will pull you through till you are able to see the plans she has for you.
So, that is my basic theological framework. Thank you for listening and holding space for me. What about you? What is your theological framework? As you look back on your life, how have your beliefs and understanding of God as well as your self changed over the years? What have been the significant guiding principles and beliefs that have helped you navigate through the difficulties and decisions of life? What is the state of your relationship with God? I encourage you to take time to reflect, journal and share your theological framework with your cell group members or church friends. Miak and I are also available if you want to dialogue with us about your journey.
I wanted to close this morning with a quote from Henri Nouwen. In the beginning of this week as I was pondering over this sermon, this quotation appeared on my Facebook feed and it felt like divine timing. Nouwen captures so many thoughts that lie in my heart and more. And he says it with such insight, wisdom and eloquence. So I will leave you with his words.
What is theology?
“The original meaning of the word ‘theology’ was ‘union with God in prayer.’ Today theology has become one academic discipline alongside many others, and often theologians are finding it hard to pray. But for the future of Christian leadership it is of vital importance to reclaim the mystical aspect of theology so that every word spoken, every word of advice given, and every strategy developed can come from a heart that knows God intimately. I have the impression that many of the debates within the church around issues such as the papacy, the ordination of women, the marriage of priests, homosexuality, birth control, abortion, and euthanasia take place on a primarily moral level. On that level, different parties battle about right and wrong. But the battle is often removed from the experience of God’s first love, which lies at the base of all human relationships..
Christian leaders…must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source for their words, advice, and guidance. Through the discipline of contemplative prayer, Christian leaders have to learn to listen again and again to the voice of love and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to them. Dealing with burning issues without being rooted in a deep personal relationship with God easily leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject. But when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative. For Christian leadership to be truly fruitful in the future, a movement from the moral to the mystical is required.” Henri Nouwen, IN THE NAME OF JESUS
So theology is not a system of religious knowledge, a collection of theoretical teachings or rational knowledge about God, but a direct experience and actual living of God’s work in one’s heart and life in the world. It is not a discourse-based science, a discussion about God, but a conversation WITH God.
As Nouwen reminds us, the overwhelming desire of the human heart is communion – which means “union with”. Such union comes to fruition within the rich atmosphere of prayer. So how is your union with God? Are you having regular conversations with God that help you know and be known by God? Are you rooted in a deep personal relationship with God? Can you hear the voice of love and find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue or situation you may be facing in your life right now?
Let us unite our hearts with God. Let’s pray.