Monday, August 31, 2009


Happy National Day Malaysia!

Old news for those back home, but I have enjoyed the 15 Malaysia project, a collection of short films (about 3-6 minutes each) by some of the nation's leading artists highlighting the joys and frustrations of Malaysia and Malaysians. Pete Teo, one of our singer-songwriters, was apparently one of the prime movers. One video is being released every few days. They include some unexpected figures!

You can also check them out on Youtube.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Travelling through Matthew 2

I think it was J.I Packer who counselled Christians in their Bible reading not to spend too long a time away from the gospels, because it is there we see Jesus clearest. So I thought it was time to find my way back there. But which one? I've grown quite familiar with Mark, having studied or taught it for the last few years. And I know bits of John quite well, which is not the same as understanding it! So I thought I'll have a crack at one of the other two, and settled on Matthew, which is surprisingly unfamiliar territory. I know this is the gospel where we get the Sermon on the Mount. And the Great Commission. And of course 9:37-8, one reason why I currently do what I do! But that's about it.

I once wrote a long reflection on Matthew 1:1-25, still one of my favourite pieces. So I might as well pick up where I left off. Not strictly reflections, but some observations on Matthew 2.

One of the big things to come through in Matthew 1 is how the story of Jesus has its roots in the story of Israel. So we get this recounting of Jesus' family tree which takes him right back to David and Abraham. In case we don't get it, 1:20 reminds us again when the angel addresses Joseph, Jesus' earthly dad, as a "son of David". There's a short but stark reminder in the genealogy of the situation of God's people, deported to Babylon because of their sin. But now, in Jesus, salvation has come, the salvation which the prophets promised beforehand.

So, the shift in chapter 2 is actually very striking. We don't go the synagogues, to the leaders of the Jewish community, but to the palace of a pagan king and some strange, foreign men who mysteriously appear from the East. Imagine watching a Malaysian film with a local setting, local characters, and an emphasis on our own history: Hang Tuah, May 13, etc. And with liberal sprinklings of Manglish, an insider language. Then, all of a sudden there's a 2-minute scene set in America with some Mat Salleh* actors, whom you dimly recognise as minor characters on some D-list TV show from ages ago, making a cameo appearance. And then disappear before you know it. Eh?

The analogy is not perfect, but it's a bit like that here. Non-Jews take prominence. No Jewish people in sight really. Herod does gather them (2:3), but it's only the Magi who actually make the journey to see Jesus. And making some great one-liners at Herod's expense: "Hey, King Herod man, where's the king?" I haven't had a chance to look at it in the NIV, but I'm reading it in the ESV and we get a lot about kingship. Jesus born in the days of Herod the king (v.1). Magi asking where's the king? (v.2). The current king troubled - "Yo Magi, can't you see I'm the king?" (v.3) and asking about the chosen king (v.4). A prophecy about a king (v.5-6). The summons of a king (v.7). An expressed but insincere desire to worship the king (v.8) And on and on it goes, until v.12, where the king's command (Herod) is subverted by the warning of the King (God).

One of the things that struck me here was of course, Egypt. Again, now that we've been reminded of Israel's history in chapter 1, any mention of Egypt is sure to recall the Exodus, God delivering his people. The allusion seems to imply that God is doing his work of rescue again, but on a deeper level: rescue from sin. I had a quick look at a commentary to try to chase the Egypt reference a little more. This is a helpful summary: "In Egypt, then, God now kept His Son safe, as he had preserved Israel long ago and out of Egypt he would soon call him to his work of redemption as he had liberated Israel from Egypt to fulfill their role as his people." (emphasis in original) The tragedy of the slaughter of the babies and the citation of Jeremiah makes a similar point. In Jeremiah, the verses cited in Matthew are actually followed by signs of hope. The point: in Jesus, God is about to do something big.

And I guess that's the point of chapter 2. Pay attention to this baby. He's the One, the world-changer you're looking for.

*Caucasian males

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telegram from Japan

A friend of mine showed me an email from K yesterday. K is a Japanese whom I got to know during my undergraduate days, a former journalist with Asahi Shimbun (I think) with aspirations of working for an F1 Team. He became a Christian during this time, and we lost contact after I graduated.

He's now back in Japan, and my friend had written to him after reminiscing about years gone by. And he wrote back! He says, paraphrased: "My time in Oxford feels so unreal now, like a dream. I wonder if it really happened...I've been telling my Sunday school here, actually only 2 children, about my Lord Jesus and how we should love him..."

That was really encouraging. Japan has so few Christians, so it is really hard to keep going. Run on, K!

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Ah Long sequel

This is one of my favourite videos of all time - Malaysian humour at its best. Long story short: kept me sane when I was taking my Finals exams 3 years ago now. Then I found out yesterday there was a sequel! Here it is: Ah Longs advertising Balsam Welding! (Probably should watch the first video beforehand)

Apologies to non-Malaysians, this is all going to appear very strange to you...

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Carrying around death

There's a particular phrase that, for some reason, refuses to be dislodged from the crevice of my mind today. It comes from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, as found in the Bible. "We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus..." (4:10).

Mind-blowing, isn't it? I just can't get over it. We always carry around / in our body / the death of Jesus.

The spectre of death is present right from the beginning. This is an impassioned and deeply personal letter, and it throbs with emotional intensity. Imagine a dearly cherished friend, away in a foreign land, possibly a dangerous one. You're ripping the envelope apart the moment you spot that he's arrived in epistolary form in today's post. Bite your lip, as you read of some hardship so severe, that he "despaired even of life" (1:8) and felt the "sentence of death" (1:9). Try to ignore, unsuccessfully, the pangs of regret, about the previous "painful visit", where one of your own had spoken out against him. Hurts more than a hundred opponents. And that earlier letter of heartfelt admonishment - oh that letter! At least it's gone now - one filled with "great distress", "anguish of heart" and "many tears" (2:4). The sorrow from having to discipline someone on the same side is felt on both sides of this correspondence.

But our friend, Paul, knows who his God is. He is the "Father of mercies and God of all comfort" (1:3). Comfort, comfort, says Isaiah the prophet centuries ago. Comfort, comfort, Paul repeats, ten times in 5 verses (1:3-7). He is weak, but God's power works amidst such weakness, the most famous soundbite in this letter (12:9). All he needs is God's provision, for "our sufficiency is from God" (3:5 ESV). Not rhetoric, or charisma, or "success" shown in the absence of suffering, thus "proving" divine favour. The God who creates simply by speaking, and who removes veils from eyes, is at work; we only serve him (4:1ff). 'Paul therefore allows his humanness, his vulnerability, his seeming inadequacies to remain visible, so that when people look at him they will not see another paradigm of the myth of self-justification, but rather the fire of God's favour and power glowing through the translucent walls of an ordinary clay vessel.' [1]

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. Four verse ten.

As I think about this, I find myself trying to escape the implications of what Paul is saying. To carry around the death of Jesus is basically saying, to die to myself every day. It's saying, persevere even though it's hard. And to persevere, you need to keep coming to Jesus, and not to yourself because that's the only way it's gonna happen. Gospel ministry can work no other way. But who wants to die? That difficult relationship with that person, when it's much easier, much less tiring to keep a distance? We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus. Tempted to subtly promote yourself, or put others down? We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus. Don't want to be awkward at the expense of truth and integrity? We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus.

Yes, I know, this Christianity thing, it's no mere psychological crutch, is it? But the promise is that true comfort, not a shallow one, is found from leaning on Jesus, who died and rose again for us. "So we do not lose heart" (4:16)

[1] An introduction to the New Testament: contexts, methods and ministry formation, David DeSilva, p.587

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Sunday, August 16, 2009


That's just a crazy time! Lightning Bolt strikes again!


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Another to file under "Truth Stranger than Fiction"

Dr. Burk Parsons, who works with R.C Sproul at Ligonier Ministries and Tabletalk Magazine - which some of my readers will know as a formidable bastion of Reformed theology - was an original Backstreet Boy! Yes those Backstreet Boys. With Brian, Nick, AJ and Howie. Really.

It gets better. He was then offered a chance to form NSync. Yes, the one with Mr. Sexy Back.

R.C Sproul and boy bands? You couldn't make this up. Btw, the whole interview in 4 parts with established Reformed blogger Challies is worth a read.

(HT: Between Two Worlds)

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The Guardian Books section has laid out a feast of sumptuous articles this week. First off, they highlight the Awful Library Books blog, which in turns features such gems as My Cat's in Love: How to Survive your feline's sex life and What's Wrong with my Snake?.

Their Top 10 list continues this week with the Top 10 teenage characters. Got a little excited at seeing Z for Zachariah on the list, a book currently lying about somewhere back home in Malaysia which I read ages and ages ago.

Then there's a tribute to Neil Gaiman. The comments thread was split. I've read Stardust and Coraline, which I enjoyed, but haven't quite seen that "it" factor that has his hardcore fans raving and has won him numerous Hugos. I would certainly be willing to pick up another Gaiman book. Even if he has also written a near-blasphemous Narnian short story, with adult themes and all. We shall speak no more of it.

Then there's the good bad book, i.e the books that you know are meant to be bad but you consume them anyway. I think GK Chesterton called them penny dreadfuls. That immediately caused a Malory Towers craving in me. And I guess the Star Wars Expanded Universe series falls in here as well (although the last one I read, Christie Golden's Omen, was pretty awful. See the relevant review here (spoiler alert!).

There's also The Travel Bookshop's 10 favourite travel reads.

OKlah, enough nerdiness dispensed.

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

Sunday School

Despite the nerves, had a real blast teaching Sunday School today. Normally we split them up into more discrete age groups, but during the summer they get lumped into two groups: under 5s and 5-11s. I normally work with the under 5s, but was asked to step in to handle the 5-11s as a one-off. Such a wide age range was always going to be a nightmare! But I had real fun doing a drama with them - haven't done that for a while! - playing some silly game where I wasn't even sure of all the rules, and then doing a very short teaching slot on the Incarnation (!) and the danger of gnosticism (!!). Not in that kind of language of course! They're not that scary smart. Although I did show them a diagram which I stole from my notes on Christology. :-p The group were so charming, and some of them insisted on a very long playtime in the garden with me afterwards.

Do Sunday School every once in a while - it's a nice change and stops you from being overly serious and adult all the time!

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Saturday, August 08, 2009


I read with interest a provocative article that recently appeared in Christianity Today: The Case for Early Marriage. The author, Mark Regnerus, notes that current sexual/marital trends in the evangelical subculture, namely pledges of chastity and the like, have had minimal impact on our sexual behaviour. In America at least, we aren't that different from the world. He goes on to argue that this is primarily due to a deficient, even unbiblical, view of marriage. For all our defence of traditional marriage, we have simply come to view marriage as "a central source of human contentment" and "romantic love [as] the key gauge of its health". Thus, marriage has been transformed into an ideal. Result? Unsurprisingly, many young adults are now much more wary of entering something so 'big'. The message they hear is: get yourselves and your lives sorted out first. And so marriage, and sex, is put on hold. But, sex is hard to put on hold, hence our disappointingly worldly behaviour. There is also a demographic dimension: simply put, there are more women than men in church. And judging from conversations I've had, this seems to be true just about everywhere - East and West.

This, Regnerus argues, tends to exacerbate rather than solve the problem. He anticipates and answers objections such as economic insecurity, immaturity and so on. Marriage is, first and foremost, a covenant, where we learn what self-sacrifical love and commitment really looks like. "Chemistry wanes. Covenants don't". Marriage is not some ready-made perfect union where you will enjoy bliss upon exchanging rings, but a place where both partners will continue to be formed in character. In conclusion, young Christian couples who are maturing in their faith should be encouraged towards marriage.

Does a right, biblical view of marriage necessarily incline one towards early marriage? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly in my church circles, I would say people get married earlier than average, and that some definitely encourage this.

But whatever you think, Regnerus is absolutely right to point out that all too often, our views of marriage are misshappened. I know I want to claim that Hollywood and novels and pop music have not affected me one iota. Considering I just went "awww" this morning at this Sleepless in Seattle story while chomping on some bacon, I'll say my claim doesn't exactly rest on solid foundations.

Historically, Christians have given three answers to the purpose of marriage, as I only found out recently. There are
1. procreation
2. intimacy
3. societal order
with Roman Catholics typically majoring on the first and Protestants the second, and no one really wanting to champion the third! All three can be biblically supported. So although romance and chemistry has been downplayed somewhat in this post, they're clearly a gift that God blesses his world with, and married couples should not be ashamed to delight in it.

But all of this needs to be understood within a covenantal framework. That is, marriages are not in service to us, but in service to God. Marriages are not just about what goes on in the bedroom, but how they function as a social and family unit. Christopher Ash, who has thought about this subject deeply, shows this from a sensitive and compelling reading of Genesis 1 and 2*. I take it Regnerus agrees with him.

To be honest, I haven't thought about the whole "what is the nature of marriage" question at any length before, and the only reason I've dwelt on it more recently was due to one or two pastoral situations that arose this past year. (Isn't that usually the case?) It's very counter-cultural to my own thinking.

I'm still not completely sure if that mandates early marriage. I remember at a conference early this year, there was a "you should definitely be thinking about marriage" line handed down to all of us (who were mostly in early to mid-20s). But in many cases, most people were already seeking to get married. The question then becomes, are you being too fussy? Well, maybe. But maybe not. I don't think that it was necessarily wrong to encourage marriage. That is, to engender courage in people that getting married isn't a bad thing and you can trust God! But perhaps a parallel emphasis that singleness is also a gift from God was needed.

But I'm starting to get somewhat off-track. Anyway, an important subject to think about.

*Christopher Ash has written both a weighty theological tome on the subject, simply entitled Marriage, and a book for laypeople, Married for God. I've only read the latter. He has also written an excellent summary article for the Christ on Campus Initiative.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Evening is the whole day

I've recently finished Preeta Samarasan's novel - RRP hardback £16.99, I picked it up for £2.99 at Oxfam! I was a little apprehensive at first, wondering, probably unfairly, whether this was going to be pretentious and overbearing, but it exceeded my expectations. I'll probably go as far as saying it's the best Malaysian novel in English I ever read. Granted, that doesn't say much, considering I have not touched Rani Manicka, Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng; my diet so far consisting of a few of the Silverfish collections, a tiny bit of K.S Maniam, and Adibah Amin in translation. And the last one probably doesn't count.

She exhibits very fine control over the narrative, subtly switching between the characters points of view and voice very well. The Manglish is spot on, and she captures the politics of family accurately enough that at times it made me squirm. I did feel Amma's transformation was a bit abrupt, and there were one or two things that didn't mesh perfectly, but those are rough edges that don't detract much from the overall novel.

Definitely worth picking up. I haven't given even a plot summary here, but for those of you who would like one, the NY Times review is your next click.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Wordsmiths: The Sympathy of Christ

His incarnation is love stooping.
His sympathy is love weeping.
His compassion is love supporting.
His grace is love acting.
His teaching is the voice of love.
His silence is the repose of love.
His patience is the restraint of love.
His obedience is the labor of love.
His suffering is the travail of love.
His cross is the altar of love.
His death is the burnt offering of love.
His resurrection is the triumph of love.
His ascension into heaven is the enthronement of love.
His sitting down at the right hand of God is the intercession of love.

Such is the deep, the vast, the boundless ocean of Christ’s love!

Octavius Winslow

HT: Of First Importance

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Monday, August 03, 2009


"If we forget that the newspapers are footnotes to Scripture and not the other way around, we will finally be afraid to get out of bed in the morning. The meaning of the world is most accurately given to us by God's Word."

- Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses (cited in From Why to Worship, Jonathan Lamb, p.41)

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