I recently had the great privilege of visiting Beijing with a team from St Helen’s Bishopsgate, my home church in London, to encourage Christians in the workplace and to participate in certain activities of our partner church in Beijing.
Our week-long itinerary included (1) an evangelistic talk in Beijing’s central business district (国贸), (2) joining in the Christian small groups in various companies dotted across the city, and (3) participating in the small group bible studies of our partner church.
If I had to sum the trip up in one word, it would be “crazy”… mostly in a good way!
It was not only the cultural aspects of Beijing that were crazy, like the sheer number of people on public transport (a.k.a. the Beijing Sardine Experience TM), the exotic food (e.g. Durian Pizza and 豆汁), or the fact that one could alight from a bus and be immediately hit by a motorcycle.
More than that, it was “crazy” to see God at work in Beijing to draw people to Him. Here are just two reflections on what I observed.
(1) God has an unstoppable plan for the world
Each morning, the team would meet to read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians together. Probably the most significant idea in Ephesians is God’s great plan to unite all things under the feet of Jesus (1.10, 22). This great plan unfolds through the church — God’s people — who often look weak, but according to Paul actually display the “manifold wisdom of God […] to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3.10). As the gospel is held forth by Christians — weak vessels (cf 2 Cor 4.7) — and as people are saved and added to their number, God’s wisdom and glory are magnified.
The amazing thing was this: each day, after meditating on God’s great plan in Ephesians, God graciously allowed us to see His plan in action before our very eyes as we went about our various activities in Beijing.
With a population of circa 22 million, the church can look and feel tiny compared to the sheer size of the sprawling city. Add to that the pressure from the government to water down the gospel, or to stop preaching it altogether: on one of the days we were there the government banned the sale of all bibles such that overnight it became impossible to buy a bible — not even on Tao Bao (the Chinese “Amazon”) on which you can quite literally buy anything under the sun (apparently, even a wife so I’m told!).
And yet, despite these odds, God is growing His church; His sheep hear the voice of their Good Shepherd and follow Him, as He calls them by name (John 10; cf 6:44).
We encountered so many people who had come to trust in Jesus in the last month or two, and many more for whom there was a real, tangible hunger to hear the gospel and to know Jesus more.
For example, at an evangelistic lunchtime event (where one of our team gave the talk and another shared her testimony), 50-60 people showed up, about half of whom (I learned later) were seekers and of whom 5-6 said that it was their first time hearing the gospel! When we split into small groups to discuss the talk, two of my group members said that they had just come to Christ on Easter Sunday — just three days before!
These numbers were staggering to me, but according to a pastor at our partner church, this was just another day at the office.
(2) His plan unfolds as the gospel is preached
The remarkable thing about all of this was precisely that what was being done was so unremarkable: as Christians shared the gospel with those around them, as they read the Scriptures with their peers, people who were once dead in their sins were made alive in Christ (cf Eph 2.5). No gimmicks, no smoke machines, no music videos; just the gospel: “while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5.6).
This should not have surprised me, but it did. The New Testament is replete with fairly “non-glamorous” instructions. The Ephesians are told to pray for all the saints that they may be bold to preach the gospel (Eph 6.19). Timothy is charged with preaching the word (2 Tim 4). Most of all, Paul, the greatest evangelist in the history of the world, tells the Corinthian church that he did not come to them with lofty speech or wisdom, but sought to preach Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2.1-5).
My time in Beijing showed me how, at least tacitly, I had become ashamed of the gospel. Even though the gospel seems weak in the world’s eyes, it is the power of God — 神的大能 — for salvation to all who believe (Romans 1.16).
I also saw how simple it was to share the gospel. Our team had the opportunity to train a few small groups on how to use Two Ways to Live (人生二路), a remarkably concise and comprehensive presentation of the good news of Jesus which I cannot commend more highly. (Just as an encouragement, I have since used the Two Ways to Live framework in both English and Mandarin to share the gospel with two taxi drivers, my sister, and my grandma!)
Beijing was a “crazy” (good) experience because I was graciously granted to see, in vivid technicolor, God’s glory and wisdom revealed through the unfolding of his great plan.
As the good news of God’s great love is proclaimed, sinners are ransomed, the church is built, and Jesus Christ is glorified. Although the gospel looks weak in the world’s eyes, it is the power of God to save.
And He is saving.
Not just in Beijing, but across the world He is gathering a people to Himself from every tribe, tongue and nation (cf Rev 7.9).
What a glorious plan — let’s get behind it.
I love music.
I wouldn’t know what I would do without it. I imagine it must be like living without colour: everything would have the appearance of varying degrees of black and white (and grey).
More than merely something to be enjoyed, I have found music to be a fascinating phenomenon. I have previously written about the connection between music and emotions (particularly nostalgia), but one question I often muse (heh) over is why human beings love music so much.
I recently came across an article by Gavin Ortlund which explores this very question. It is well worth reading in full (“The Real Reason You Love Music”), but of interest to me is Ortlund’s exploration of this question from a Christian worldview perspective. In a beautifully expressed passage, he says:
If a triune God created the world as a work of art—not out of necessity, but out of love and freedom—then music can be understood, along with everything beautiful in the world, as a faint reflection of the pre-temporal glory of God. It is a tiny echo of what was happening before time and space. What rhythm and harmony are trying to do, however imperfectly, is trace out something of that love and joy that has been forever pulsating between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Viewed in this way, music is not a distraction away from reality, but rather a clue toward it. It is not like an opiate to a man on his deathbed, but like a window to a man in a cellar—a light shining into the darkness, revealing something beyond. In this respect I associate music with art, reason, and sex. They are like little windows through which transcendence touches our lives, whispering to us of a world we have never dreamed.
In short, we as Christians we can readily acknowledge that music is a good gift from a creator God, given by Him for us to enjoy, and through which we can have a sense of transcendence beyond this world into true Reality: God Himself.
If our hearts are restless until they find rest in Him, is it any wonder that He has given us clues in this world — music, beauty, art, nostalgia — things which cause us to resonate with an “inconsolable longing” (as C.S. Lewis would put it) for the eternal?
This makes sense, somewhat, of why we are instructed to sing songs of praise to God (e.g. Psalms 30, 96). If music helps us to know Him, what better way to exalt Him than with it? Indeed, music and singing helps the word of God to dwell in us richly and fuels our joy in Christ (Colossians 3:16; cf Ephesians 5:19).
There are, of course, limits to how far this line of reasoning can go (which Ortlund himself recognises). For example, it is not the case that music proves the existence of God; nor can one truly know God through music (i.e. apart from the special revelation of God through His Son Jesus).
We need also to recognise the power that music has, and to wield it carefully. To seek transcendence apart from God is to court danger. Human beings are spiritual beings, so we naturally long for spiritual experiences; but not all such experiences are from the good God.
In conclusion, may we enjoy the good gift of music with thankful hearts, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with [our] heart[s], giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph 5.19-20)
It’s never too late to pray for the year just past. This beautiful prayer was recently shared with me by a close friend.
You have been our dwelling place in all generations; in you we are utterly secure.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants!
Come, Lord Jesus!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!
(Based on Psalm 90)
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.
Christmas is great for a whole host of reasons: good food, mulled wine, Christmas markets, time spent with friends and family, presents (of course!), but best of all — the birth of Jesus Christ.
The Incarnation is a marvelous mystery. There is the “How” — how could the infinite, omnipotent, omnipresent God come down to Earth and take on finite, weak, human flesh? How could a mere baby, lying in a manger, uphold the universe by the word of his power (Heb 1:1-3; cf Col 1:15-17)?
For me, however, the more poignant question has always been the “Why” — why would the perfect Son of God empty himself and take the form of a servant, born in human likeness (cf Phil 2:7)? Why would he enter our fallen world full of decay, suffering, pain and death — not least his own humiliating death on the cross of Calvary?
The latter question has been especially striking for me this year. 2017 has been a trying year: friends of mine in their prime diagnosed with life-changing illness; the shocking, sudden death of the sister of a colleague; and horrific acts of violence and terror, both close to home and further afield.
2017 also saw a close relationship of mine come to an end, caused primarily by my own sin. The sense of loss and regret has been palpable: I have at times felt an anguish like never before — a sustained bout of crushing pain in my chest (I suppose) like the onset of a cardiac arrest — and at other times a seething self-loathing.
For each of us, the world in which we live has the fingerprints of the Fall — decay, suffering, pain, and death. Things fall apart.
Which begs the question: why? Why would the perfect Son of God leave his throne of glory in Heaven to come to Earth, to enter our stricken, sin-infected world?
There are a number of reasons, but here is one which is of great comfort to me: he came down to identify with his people whom he saves.
[Jesus is not] unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but [he] in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15–16)
Jesus sympathises with my weakness. He knows the frustrations of living in a fallen world. He knew sickness and pain. He knew the death of loved ones (Lazarus). He knew the anguish of betrayal by his closest friends (the Twelve). He knew loneliness and abandonment. And he knew the pain of death — his own, excruciating death, nailed to the cross.
He came down to die in our place, as our substitute. And in order to do this he had to — and chose to — come down in human form and lay his life down for his beloved. All this to save us to a glorious new future with him where there will no longer be any death, nor crying, nor pain any more (cf Rev 21:1-3).
When I feel acutely the frustrations of living in a fallen world, this truth is a bulwark against the waves of despair. I do not trust in a distant, impersonal god. Rather, he came down and entered my fallen world; he was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3); he knows what I’m going through. Indeed, he endured far worse than I ever will.
Because of this I can draw near to his throne of grace and receive mercy and grace to help when I am in need (which is often!). And I can look forward with hope to the future, when he will return to restore everything.
You can too, because of Christmas.
For he is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.
Come behold the wondrous mystery,
In the dawning of the king;
He the theme of heaven’s praises,
Robed in frail humanity.
In our longing, in our darkness,
Now the light of life has come;
Look to Christ who condescended,
Took on flesh to ransom us.
I’ve really grown to love this hymn, and the first verse is particularly apt for Christmas time. What a wondrous mystery it is that the infinite God would take on finite fallible flesh to ransom us!
My husband struggles with same-sex attraction. Like me, Sam came into this world with an innate and insatiable desire for things that bring death. Like me, he came into our marriage bearing the weight of pain he didn’t ask for and the scars of choices he can’t change. And like me, he has chosen to trust Christ—not to make him heterosexual, but to make him holy.
That is how this article – “I Married a Same-Sex Attracted Man. And I Am Blessed.” – by Jacyln Parrish starts.
The piece is well worth reading in full, even if you do not experience similar struggles; indeed I found myself resonating with a lot of what she said. (For example, how we all “came into this world with an innate an insatiable desire for things that bring death” (see above)).
Indeed, I found the article in equal parts heavy-hitting…
Marriage is an incarnate manifestation of Christ and his church (Eph. 5:22–33), a living and breathing argument for the gospel. Nothing less than his grace could empower us to forgive as much as marriage requires (Matt. 18:21–35). Nothing less than a perfectly faithful God could give us courage to trust something as faithless as another human (1 Tim. 2:13). And nothing less than his love could compel us to love as wholly as we must (1 John 4:19).
… and deeply moving.
When I was in second grade, I bet my eternity on Scripture. When I married Sam, I bet my life on it. The 8-year-old girl in the baptistry anted up as best she could, but the woman at the altar was all-in, and she knew it. If I was wrong, it wouldn’t cost me down the line after death. It would cost me today, tomorrow, and every day for the rest of my life. Suddenly, Scripture wasn’t something I could devote the odd half-hour to; I had to build my life on it, and I needed it beneath my feet every moment. […]
When the scars of past sins start screaming (and yes, they do), Sam and I cling to Scripture and weep together before our Savior, “I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me!” (Ps. 119:8).
And at the end of each day, both good and bad, we can echo the psalmist: “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (Ps. 119:16)
Life is tough. Married life — covenantally-committed to a fellow faithless human — is tough. But God’s word is a source of real comfort and edification; and His gospel is good news indeed for a fallen world!
A strange phenomenon happened to me recently
On two separate occasions, I started to listen again to singer-songwriters I used to listen to more than 10 years ago, but have not really since — Damien Rice and Corinne Bailey Rae.
Both times, I listened to familiar tunes from back then — tracks from the albums O (2002) and Corinne Bailey Rae (2006). (How awesome is Spotify by the way?)
And in both cases, I was magically transported back in time to my adolescent years. Not that I was somehow having vivid visions of past events, but rather that I felt familiar emotions from that period of my life. At times these emotions hit me really strongly, almost as if I had imbibed a potent potion.
There was a real sense of nostalgia about these songs.
I have heard it said that one often clings to the music they’ve listened to and grown to love in their adolescent years, because those are the years when one is going through the most emotionally significant moments in one’s life (what with hormones racing etc.). Music in those moments helps one to channel (or express) their emotions, and those songs end up leaving an indelible impression on the individual.
Isn’t it just uncanny how music is able to do that? It helps you to feel what the songwriter has put into the song, which I suppose is the straightforward bit; but it also helps you to channel your feelings into the song itself, such that together with your emotions these songs become part of your person.
And I guess that’s what happened to me these past two weeks. Those songs from the past reacquainted me with emotions from before, almost from a past life: past emotions which I had forgotten about, or perhaps even suppressed.
But more than that, those songs also helped me to channel the emotions that had been bottled up within me. Those songs from the past granted me the vocabulary to express the suppressed (negative) emotions of the present, which was a somewhat cathartic experience.
As someone who is rather emotionally unintelligent, I find myself utterly fascinated by the power (and danger) of music in this regard.
A brief coda to this blog post: these past two weeks have also served to cement my view that the state of music has sorely declined in the last 10 years. I think this is true generally of all “pop” music, but Damien Rice and Corrine Bailey Rae are good cases-in-point. Their later albums have some good stuff (“The Greatest Bastard”, I’m looking at you) but nothing quite like the brilliance of O and Corrine Bailey Rae. (But yeah please feel free to write this last paragraph off as the rant of a grumpy old man against the younger generation…)
Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. (Psalm 119:67)
I have recently finished reading John Piper’s short and superb little biography, Martin Luther: Lessons from His Life and Labour (free to download here). Piper focuses on the significance of Scripture to Luther’s life and ministry, drawing out certain lessons to exhort those in gospel ministry.
Many of the points from the Luther story are largely expected — the importance of keen study of the Scriptures; original languages as the key to understanding the text; the necessity of prayer and utter dependency on God; and so on.
But the bit which caught me off guard, and which left the deepest impression on me, is what Luther called the “touchstone” of understanding Scripture: trials.
Reflecting on Psalm 119, Luther said:
I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself […] The method of which I am speaking is the one which the holy king David teaches in Psalm 119 […] Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout the psalm and run thus: Oratio, meditatio, tentatio (prayer, meditation, trial).
Oratio, meditatio, tentatio. Prayer, meditation, trial.
And trials Luther called the “touchstone”, for they
teach you not only to know and understand but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s word is: it is wisdom supreme.
And Luther again, reflecting on his own experiences, said:
For as soon as God’s Word becomes known through you, the devil will afflict you and will make a real doctor of you, and will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s Word. For I myself […] owe my papists many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil’s raging that they should have turned me into a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached.
The language of “trials” or “afflictions” feels so foreign to many of us who live in the developed world. More so if we are in our 20s and 30s. Most of us have yet to encounter any real suffering; many of us still view ourselves as invincible.
And so it is for me, someone who lives a relatively comfortable life in 21st century London.
Lately, though, I’ve been going through quite a difficult period. I’ve been forced to strip away many things I held dear and placed my hope in. It’s been humbling and painful.
But in each painful instance, Jesus has welcomed me with outstretched arms, saying, “I’m enough for you; if you have me, you have everything“.
Much like when Eustace is “undragoned” by Aslan in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, this pain is the necessary restorative work of turning me back to my loving Saviour. Or much like Luther (above), this trial is teaching me to know my Lord Jesus more deeply. Indeed, I am becoming a better theologian.
By no means am I holding myself out to be an expert or “holier than thou”. I don’t even think I’ve fully come out of this trial as yet. And in any case, my pain does not even begin to compare to the ordeals some of my brothers and sisters in Christ have endured, let alone to the anguish my Saviour suffered.
But I can testify that in my state, His Words bring me great comfort. They are sweeter, truer, lovelier. He is the living water who truly satisfies my deepest thirst; he is the bread of life who truly satisfies my deepest hunger; he is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear?
His grace is sufficient for me, for his power is made perfect in my weakness.
He has a plan; He is sovereign and will bring it to pass; He who promised is faithful, He will surely do it.
Dear brother or sister, if you are going through a similarly difficult situation, don’t neglect the tentatio which God will no doubt use to deepen your knowledge of Him. May this fiery trial bring you closer to Him and fill you with inexpressible joy. ❤
Let me find Your grace in the valley
Let me find Your life in my death
Let me find Your joy in my sorrow
Your wealth in my need
That You’re near with every breath
In the valley