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It looked like an episode of Spooks. But it wasn’t. This was the real BBC and it was a real terrorist incident outside the Houses of Parliament in London.

Five people have died and at least 40 were injured after an attacker drove a car along a pavement in Westminster, stabbed a policeman and was shot dead by police in the grounds of Parliament. (BBC)

Various thoughts came to mind. Because this is London, and because we watch BBC/Sky/CNN, this attack will dominate the media. But such attacks are daily realities in other parts of the world. Do you remember the IS attack on a Kabul military hospital in March? In that incident, IS gunmen dressed as doctors killed 30 people.

I recall a time when the terrorists were the IRA (Irish Republican Army). Remember the Hyde Park and Regents Park bombings on 20 July 1982? Eleven military personnel and seven horses were killed. This should challenge any notion that terrorism is essentially a Muslim problem. Given the right circumstances, any community is capable of terrorist violence.

Violence is, finally, a human problem that is rooted in our alienation from God. When humankind sinned, they were not only estranged from God, they were estranged from each other. Adam blames Eve for his sin instead of taking responsibility. By the next generation, Cain would smash the skull of his brother Abel and we hear echoes of that blow echoing throughout history, more recently in places like Kabul and London.

How long O Lord? When will we be finally free of violence and these daily expressions of human inhumanity to each other? We see passages like Isaiah 11: 1-16 and we hold God at His word:

1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them. (NIV)

We long for that day when the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat and the calf and the lion will be together. We note that this unity will come about because God’s Messiah will come to remove evil and injustice, and this will involve humanity’s recognition of His leadership.

. . . attempts to arrive at a just world peace based on mutual self-interest must finally fail. Only mutual commitment to the Holy One who is righteous and faithful can provide an environment where human beings can commit themselves to one another in trust . . . (John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1 – 39 [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986], 284.)

We know the Messiah has come but we didn’t count on the fact that His plan was a two-parter. In His first coming He suffers and dies on our behalf but it is only in His second coming that He will complete His restoration programme. What is kind of cool is that He uses violence to destroy violence. It was His death on the Cross that put into play God’s plan to remove sin and the results of sin. But we have to wait for His coming again to finish the job. At least He gave us the resurrection on which to pin our hopes.

What do we do in the meantime?

We pray “your kingdom come” while committing ourselves to be agents of His will on earth. That includes:

  • Weeping with those who weep and doing what we can to help bear the burdens of the victims of violence.
  • Supporting the legitimate attempts of the authorities in their efforts to prevent violence.
  • Building bridges between different communities in obedience to God’s call to be peacemakers.
  • Working for justice especially for the weak and disenfranchised.
  • Lovingly sharing the gospel as we try to point people to the only true source of peace with justice.

No, last night’s terrorist attack in London was not an episode of Spooks. It is not entertainment. And we can’t watch on as though it is just entertainment. WWJHYD? What would Jesus have you do? What would Jesus have me do? What would Jesus have us do together?

 

[Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched Logan (2017) and intend to do so, go watch it before you read this. Watch out for the profanity and violence.]

Logan is one of those movies that remain with you long after you leave the theatre. I will share a proper reflection on the movie some other time. Just thought I’d reflect on one part of the show. Much of the show has the three main characters, Logan, Professor Xavier and Laura, trying to escape a group called the Reavers who want to capture Laura. The three need to get to a place called Eden, a haven for mutants which may or may not exist.

In the middle of their dangerous road trip they experience warmth and kindness. They stop to help a family, the Munsons, who invite them to their home for a meal. After dinner, Logan wants to move on realising they are in danger and that they would endanger those around them. But Professor Xavier accepts the Munsons offer to stay the night. Xavier hungered for the normalcy and love he had not experienced for a long time. He shares with Logan his vision of what is important in life:

 A home, people love each other. A safe place.

For their kindness, the Munsons get slaughtered. They all die horribly at the hands of a Logan clone. Their reward for doing the right thing is death.

Recently I have been going through 1 Samuel for my daily Bible reading. In 1 Samuel 21 and 22 we read the sad story of the priest, Ahimelech. He showed kindness to David and his men. He helped the Lord’s anointed. His reward? He and his family get slaughtered by a jealous Saul. Only one son, Abiathar, escapes. The unfairness of it all is very disturbing. Shouldn’t the Lord have protected the one who did right? The brutal fact, with evidence in the Bible and in life, is that doing the right thing is no protection from evil. In fact, often, the righteous act itself is what triggers evil.

The unfairness that the Munsons suffer in Logan haunts you for the rest of the movie. How will this part of the storyline get resolved? Well, at one level some resolution comes when the bad guys all die in the end. But a more satisfying resolution comes as a surprise. It comes after the movie is over. When the credits are rolling, we hear a Johnny Cash song, “The Man Comes Around (2002)”, a song about the second coming of Jesus. Here is one of the verses:

There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names.
An’ he decides who to free and who to blame.
Everybody won’t be treated all the same.
There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down.
When the man comes around.

Ok, the late Johnny Cash may not be the best theologian around and you may question some to the lyrics of the song but it is clearly a song about the return of Christ and the final judgement. No, we will not be treated the same. Choosing God and good may result in pain and suffering in this life but we need to see our lives in the light of this final cosmic audit. Metaphorically, I imagine the Munsons invited up the golden ladder.

As I write this, it has been one month since Pastor Raymond Koh has been kidnapped. Still not a single word from the captors. Still no hopeful updates from the police. In choosing to do the right thing, Pastor Raymond gets kidnapped and who knows what suffering he is undergoing right now, if he is still with us. And his story is just one of many. No, choosing to do the right thing may not bring us immediate rewards. It may actually result in suffering and hardship. But we ask God for the strength and the courage to continue to do what is right. Because we know a day will come when the Man comes around.

I was confused by the following passage for a long time.

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
(Genesis 3:16 NIV)

It comes from a part of Scripture where God is telling the different players in this primal human drama, the consequences for their sin. I get the pain in childbearing bit, but why should a wife’s sexual desire for her husband be a consequence of sin? Here is where expensive seminary education pays off. I discovered subsequently that the word for desire here is the same word used in Genesis 4:7 where God warns Cain that sin desires to control Cain. So the woman’s desire for her husband is not sexual desire but a desire to control. Hence the verse is a reference to the woman’s desire to control her husband and the husband’s rule/control of the woman.

The war of the sexes is a sad consequence of the fallenness of human kind. History records too many instances of men treating women as second class, property to be controlled and used, and women fighting back with whatever weapons they had. In time, we saw the rise of various feminist movements that sought to fight for gender parity. I write this on International Women’s Day (8 March). The very fact that we still need a day like this shows that the fight for women’s rights continues.

But how should men and women relate to each other? The answer is found in the first two chapters of Genesis. Here in the lives of Adam and Eve, we see God’s intent for men and women. Two things should characterise male-female relationships — companionship and co-labour.

It was God’s declaration that it was not good for man to be alone that led to the creation of Eve. When Adam first saw Eve he burst into song (Genesis 2:23). And poetry in the Bible indicates heightened emotion. With the coming of Eve, Adam was no longer alone. Here was someone equal yet different from him, a partner to share life with, a partner to love (Ephesians 5:25; Titus 2:4).

One of the first jobs Adam and Eve were given was to be fruitful and increase in number to fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28). This was a mission that neither the man nor the woman could do alone. They needed each other in order “to be fruitful”. God made men and women different so that they could complement each other and together serve the purposes of God.

At one level this is a picture of a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage. But the principles that undergird husband-wife relationships also point us to how men and women should relate to each other in general. We are to be companions walking together in mutual care, with each gender contributing their unique strengths so that together we can serve the purposes of God. Men and women need each other. Sin hurts this relationship but in Christ we are to once again recover the dimensions of companionship and interdependence, in gender relationships. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians:

. . . in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. (1 Corinthians 11:11–12 NIV)

So much of the modern debate on gender roles in the churches focuses on the question of gender and leadership. I think this is helpful as we struggle together to see what the Bible actually teaches on this subject because we want to obey the Word. I have godly Bible scholar friends on various sides of the debate and I especially appreciate those who can discuss the matter with gentleness and love.

I am concerned however that not enough attention is paid to how men and women actually live and serve together. Indeed, one unintended and unfortunate consequence of the debate on women and leadership is to put men and women on different sides of the equation when in truth they are on the same side and they need each other. Whatever our convictions about women in leadership, we need to work hard at helping brothers and sisters care for each other and encourage all to contribute their unique gifts so that together we can do the work of God. After all it is as male and female that we bear God’s image (Genesis 1:27).

Our church small group is studying the book of Revelation. I have the privilege of leading a few of the sessions. It’s a book that is full of symbols and imagery that made sense to the original writer and audience but can often be hard to interpret by present-day readers. And there is another reason why the book is hard to interpret. We are not experiencing persecution for the privilege of following Jesus.

Revelation . . . invites its audience to an eternal perspective on the world. It invites us to worship with the Lord of hosts in heaven. It invites us to count as triumph our sufferings in this world that will be rewarded in the coming one. . . .The world considers martyrdom folly; in light of eternity, it is a price well paid. (Introduction to Revelation,” NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016], 2219.)

The kidnapping of Pastor Raymond Koh in Malaysia on Feb 13th, 2017, helped give us a proper perspective for our study.

According to closed-circuit television footage and witnesses, Mr Raymond Koh Keng Joo was taken by at least five masked men after his car was blocked by three black sport utility vehicles in Jalan Bahagia in Selangor’s Petaling Jaya between 10.30am and 10.45am.

 

According to CCTV footage, at least three black SUVs stopped in the middle of the road at the time of the incident. Mr Koh’s abduction was not properly captured by the camera, but the shuffling of feet can be seen, with two SUVs seen moving away, followed by a light-coloured car believed to be Mr Koh’s. The third SUV was later seen trailing them.

 

Ms Liew [wife], 61, believes the people who kidnapped her husband were “no ordinary abductors”. “The abductors were masked. The abduction was professionally executed and it took less than 60 seconds (as shown by CCTV footage),” she said.

 

No ransom demand has been made so far and his car remains missing. (“Family of kidnapped pastor offers $3k reward,” The Straits Times, Feb 20, 2017, 5:00 AM SGT http://bit.ly/2mvHEL5)

I know Raymond. I first met him in the ’80s when I was starting out in ministry in Penang. I met him on and off in the years following. Here was a humble servant of the Lord committed to love God and to love neighbour. I especially remember the time when my first wife died and I was in a mess. He helped give rides to school for son Stephen. Our paths took different directions in the years following and we didn’t have much contact. But I always saw Pastor Raymond as a brother who was consistent in his wholehearted commitment to share God’s love with all, and especially with the poor. Hence I am angry and disturbed that a man like this has been kidnapped.

It has been more than two weeks now and there is not a single word from his abductors. Why was he kidnapped? We can only speculate. It can’t be for money. His family is not rich and, if it had been for money, surely the kidnappers would have been in contact by now. Perhaps he was kidnapped because of his ministry. He had set up Harapan Komuniti (Community of Hope) in 2004:

To help single mothers, drug addicts and those with HIV/ AIDS. The community centre in Taman Sri Manja here also served as a place for children to learn English, have free tuition or do their homework. (http://bit.ly/2lVTSLh)

Darkness resists the light. Jesus had warned His disciples that we should expect persecution in this world. This is hard to understand for those of us who live in parts of the world that have not seen the persecution of Christians in recent history.

Seeing the movie “Silence” (2016) may be helpful education. Bernice and I saw it recently. We left with more questions than answers and a little disappointed, even though we were wowed by the spectacular cinematography. We saw, onscreen, Christians drowned, burnt, beheaded, and slowly bled to death by been hung upside down over a pit, for their faith. This was a depiction of events that actually took place in Japan in the 16th century. In more recent times, we have had a whole new big catalogue of the persecution of Christians by Islamic State and other radical Muslim groups that are no less horrible.

Invariably, most followers will ask at some point in their lives, what they would do if they had to choose between Christ and torture. I am a middle-class guy used to my creature comforts. I am worried that I won’t hold out too long. I comfort myself by reminding myself that if God were to allow me to go through a time of testing He must give me the grace I need to survive the testing. But even with God’s grace, I assume it will still be difficult.

I heard that when pastor James Lai, a pastor in Malaysia, was finally released after he was arrested under the Internal Security Act in the ’80s, someone told him that surely God’s grace was sufficient for his time of testing. I am told he said yes, but added that, even with God’s grace, the experience was very difficult. I get very upset at those who glibly say that those who suffer for Christ will be ok because God’s grace will be sufficient. I suggest that those of us who have never been tortured for Christ before should just shut up and pray.

Will we ever have the privilege to suffer for the name of Christ? Only God knows. And maybe we shouldn’t spend too much time speculating about what might or might not be. Instead, we should focus on being true to Christ in the context of our own lives. And the season of Lent seems to be the ideal time to rededicate our lives to Christ and to carry our crosses daily. In the meantime, Bernice and I join many followers of Jesus all around the world to intercede for Pastor Raymond. May we not fail our brother by failing to pray for him and his family, and by failing to follow Christ whatever the cost, in our individual assignments.

 

One of the first songs I ever sang in public was James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” It was 1970, I was in Form 4 (grade 10) and I was auditioning for a place in a school concert. I didn’t get in but this should tell you that I have had a long acquaintance with James Taylor, ok at least with his music. So it was really special to catch him live tonight (Feb 21) with darling Bernice and son Mark. It has been 23 years since he came to Singapore. We didn’t know if he would come to Singapore again. Bernice and I both love his music and we had dreamed of going to his concert together. This will be a special memory for us.

He understood that many in the audience came to hear his older songs. He was even apologetic the two times he sang new material. The new songs were good but they didn’t stand a chance against the older songs because the older songs were memory hooks that transported the listeners back to key points in their lives. My first exposure to Taylor was the decade of 1970 to 1980. It was a time of: exams, measles, crushes, intense friendships, worries about your future, leaving home for the first time to go to university, etc. —James Taylor’s songs were a large part of the soundtrack of my life in a period where so much life happened. His new songs cannot transport me back to that time like his early songs can.

James Taylor is 69 now. He has had a successful career by any measure. The reasons for his continuing success are obvious. He has a warm voice that reaches your heart, of course a bit weaker now. He is a fantastic guitarist. He has a self-deprecating sense of humour. (After singing “Fire and Rain,” he said that the song meant a lot to him. Then he said the next song meant nothing to him and launched into “Steam Roller Blues.” Well, you had to be there.) He surrounds himself with top-notch musicians. But finally, it is the songs he sings; both his covers of other people’s compositions and his own compositions.

His songs move you for many reasons. There are songs that powerfully describe the human condition, like “Sweet Baby James” (loneliness), “Carolina On My Mind” (homesickness), “Fire and Rain” (the need for divine help in overcoming addictions):

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus,
You’ve got to help me make a stand.
You’ve just got to see me through another day.
My body’s aching and my time is at hand and I won’t make it any other way.

You listen to songs like these and say, “yes, that’s right, that’s how it is” and you feel less lonely. There are fun songs that make you laugh, like “Steam Roller Blues”, his parody of blues music that is over-pretentious, and songs that describe what we should be at our best. He is perhaps best known for “You’ve Got a Friend” which was composed by Carole King. It is the best song on friendship I know.

Once in awhile glimpses of the divine appear in his music, like that verse in “Fire and Rain” above. I learnt a new song at the concert, “Shed A Little Light.” It’s a call for humanity to reach out to each other in love, recognising the bonds that bind us together. It’s a message that we desperately need today. The song recognises that human unity can only come about with divine help.

Shed a little light, oh Lord,
So that we can see,
Just a little light, oh Lord.
Want to stand it on up,
Stand it on up, oh Lord,
Want to walk it on down,
Shed a little light, oh Lord.

Can’t get no light from the dollar bill,
Don’t give me no light from a TV screen.
When I open my eyes I want to drink my fill
From the well on the hill,
Do you know what I mean?

We do, JT, we do. Thank you.

 

A few weeks ago I preached on unity and diversity in the church. I recalled that when I started ministry more than 30 years ago, the main subject that divided the church was the charismatic issue. I said I was so glad that that conflict was behind us now and that the different sides had learnt from each other.

After the service, a good friend had a word with me. She asked if I knew what people were hotly divided over these days? I said I didn’t. She said that the topic that divided people in the church these days was whether one was for Trump or against Trump. I was flabbergasted. There were so many pressing issues facing the church in Malaysia and people were heatedly voicing support for or criticism of the American president?

I understand that what happens in the US has implications for the rest of the world. I understand that the recent US presidential election was contentious and that different visions of what America is and should be are now being hotly contested. We should care and we should pray. But that it should be the main topic of dispute in the church in Malaysia?

Surely this must be the triumph of American media. So much of the English-speaking world tunes in to Western media that it shapes our hearts and minds. It doesn’t help that the political scene in the US today resembles an ongoing soap opera with new characters and new developments hitting the headlines every day. Perhaps political events in the US now serve as entertainment. We tune in daily to see the latest and, like all entertainment, it serves as an escape from what we need to face.

I am not saying that we should be Malaysia focused or Singapore focused, and not America focused. As always, we must be God focused.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41–42 NIV)

We need to let our hearts be shaped by God and our agendas be directed by God. Indeed the voice of God is needed more than ever in these dark and confusing times. There are many pressing issues facing the church in Malaysia and Singapore. My fear is that the Lord is speaking but we are not hearing because we are distracted by the media we are consuming.

I take it that, this side of heaven, we see things as reflections in a mirror (1 Corinthians 13:12) and that believers will disagree on things that matter to us. We need to discuss things in charity as we seek clarity, but perhaps, we need to first ask the Lord what are the things that should occupy our limited “bandwith”.

 

Singaporeans can expect new policies to tackle acts that denigrate other races or religions, preach intolerance, or sow religious discord.

The impending changes will take place this year [2016] to protect secular Singapore’s racial and religious harmony, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

“The Government has got to come forward, mobilise the community in a very substantive way so that the message gets understood,” he added. [Walter Sim, “Government looking at new steps to protect social harmony: Shanmugam,” The Straits Times, Jan 20th, 2016.]

Followers of Jesus should be among the first to play their part in helping to build and maintain social harmony in Singapore.  We understand all human beings to be made in the image of God and deserving of respect. I can’t see how any true follower of Christ would ridicule anyone of whatever race or religion. Understanding that we are all saved by grace, there should also be no room for any triumphalism. And as those called to turn the other cheek, Christians should have sanctified thick skin and be slow to anger if offended. Indeed, when Jesus was asked as to how one inherits eternal life, He answers by telling a story where a Samaritan (looked down upon by the Jews) is the hero, and where the hero reaches beyond racial and cultural barriers to show compassion.

But followers of Christ are also people who see God’s authority as supreme and God’s will as revealed in the Bible. Therefore we believe that all are lost in sin and cut off from God, the source of life, and that the only way back to God is through His Son, Jesus Christ. This gospel is central to our convictions and we see freedom of religion defending our right to share this message in private and in public. Clearly some will be offended by this claim. On our part we should share the gospel humbly and in love. We cannot and must not force anyone to listen to our message, much less subscribe to it. We can’t guarantee how others will respond to the gospel message. But share the gospel we must.

So while we support all attempts to build bridges of understanding and care between different religious groups, we also understand that true dialogue includes both empathetic listening — and many of us have been doing this poorly — and sensitive sharing of our beliefs. Therefore we are committed to a healthy secularism, not a secularism that suppresses religious belief but one that does not champion any one religion and provides an even playing field for all communities. (Coming from Malaysia, I know first hand the injustice that can happen when a government is dominated by one religion.)

Therefore followers of Christ must defend the right of all groups to share their convictions. There are groups who have strong feelings against some aspects of our faith. There are those who think Christians are unscientific bigots, hypocrites and weirdos. We should defend their right to think so and to share their convictions in private and in public. Hopefully we can engage in meaningful dialogue with some of them but they have a right to their message even as we have a right to ours.

We live in challenging times. The government’s concerns are valid and deserve our support. As followers of Jesus our commitment continues to be to love and to truth. Lord help us to do this well in these difficult times.

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7 NIV)

I first met Denis and June Lane in 1976, when I joined a church community that would eventually become Evangel Baptist Church, Singapore. I was in dental school. They were OMF missionaries stationed in Singapore. They had been involved in church planting in Malaya/Malaysia before moving on to various key leadership positions in OMF. The husband and wife team, together with a good friend, Dr Lucille Ramish, played a significant role in my spiritual formation. When they retired, the Lanes moved back to England. Denis passed away yesterday, Feb 1st, 2017. I regret that constraints of time and money meant that I didn’t get to see him for many years. And now I will have to wait for the new heavens and the new earth to see him again.

Denis, together with June, mentored me in various critical ways.

Model

First, he was a powerful model of the Christian faith. Trained as a lawyer, Denis went on to do his theological education in Oak Hill Theological College. He entered missions at a time when there was no such thing as short-term missions. When you obeyed God’s call to go to a country/region, you were there for good. And bad. They were real people with real struggles and frustrations, but what remains with you is the sense that God was very real to them and their willingness to do whatever their Lord called them to do.

Wisdom

A good mentor gently and humbly suggests biblical wisdom where needed. Denis pointed me to Regent College at a time when I was bombarded by many suggestions as to where I should do my theological education. Regent then was a small school in Vancouver not known by many. Going to Regent was a key turning point of my life and ministry. (OMF also helped with a scholarship that was much needed.) When Hee Ling, my first wife, was at the end stage of her cancer, Denis and June came by to pray and advised me to hope for the best but to prepare for the worst. Not many had the courage to say this, but it was timely advice as Hee Ling was to pass away soon after that. (Denis was also a good friend of Michael, Bernice’s first husband.)

Encouragement

I think one of the most important gifts a mentor can give to his or her mentoree is encouragement. Denis and June faithfully encouraged me to be faithful to what God had called me to do. Denis also gave me much encouragement in the area of biblical preaching. Encouragement nurtures courage and strength. The Lanes, and Dr Ramish, affirmed me at a time when I was a cocky, impatient, judgemental, angry young man. (There will be those who say that I am now a cocky, impatient, judgemental, angry old man.) They could have cut me down to size but they patiently loved me and waited for the Lord to teach me.

Time

The most precious gift a mentor gives a mentoree is time. Denis and June were always available whenever I had questions and difficulties. They initiated many meet ups. You know they were there for you. Looking back now, you better appreciate how precious their time was. They had many people and situations that needed their time. But they invested in my life. We are who we are because of those who loved us and invested their lives in us.

I received news of his passing when I was back in Penang for the Lunar New Year holidays, a time that surfaced many memories and many feelings. I felt sad that I never had the chance to see Denis one last time. I am glad he is with the Lord. I pray the Lord will help June in the days ahead. I pray that I am and will continue to be a good steward of Denis’s nurturing.

“Your story is not over yet.”

I was at a very low point in my life. Everything was falling apart. I felt trapped, paralysed, looking at an oncoming car on the road of life, about to be road kill. I happened to be at a morning prayer meeting for church workers. While we were praying, the Lord spoke to me. He said: “Your story is not over yet.” I was studying the book of Genesis for my daily Bible reading at that time. I was reminded of Joseph’s story, a life with incredible ups and downs. It was a story with a happy ending. At the end of his life, not only was Joseph blessed, he was a blessing to a whole nation.

Joseph started his life spoilt and pampered but, along the way, his faith grew. Still, life was a tumultuous roller-coaster ride. There were moments in his life that would have broken any man. Yet he continued to trust God, resisted temptation, and blessed people.  His story ended in a good place. But apart from the dreams he had received when he was young, there was no way he could have known the ending of his story. Joseph didn’t give up. He continued to turn the pages of his story, allowing God to write it until the incredible ending.

In that very dark time of my life, God told me my story was not yet over. At that moment I had no idea what that meant. I believed God was reminding me of the story of Joseph. That didn’t take away my pain, but encouraged me not to give up. My life was nowhere near the holiness of that biblical giant but I was reminded “God will make a way when there seems to be no way”, though He may not do it immediately.

I note that I didn’t receive any special guidance to study the book of Genesis at the time this happened. It just so happened that Genesis was the book I was reading for my quiet time. But this has happened too many times for it to be coincidental. I will be systematically studying a book of the Bible when the Lord uses something from that book to speak to me. The living Word uses the written word to speak a personal word to me.

There are those who understand the importance of regular Bible reading, but often this spiritual discipline feels dry when one encounters only the content of the text. It fills the head but does not touch the heart. There are those who prefer that the Lord speak to them in direct, timely prophetic words, but this approach alone often denies them the needed formation that comes from studying the whole counsel of God.

I have learnt that the two ways of studying the Word need not be mutually exclusive. Of course we should always be open to any direct personal promptings from the Lord, but we should also approach the regular systematic study of God’s Word with receptive minds and hearts. In the Emmaus road passage, Jesus opened their minds (Luke 24:45) and burned their hearts (Luke 24:32).

As we progress in this New Year let us commit ourselves afresh to the study of the Word. We need it in order to grow in faith (1 Peter 2:2). And some of you may hear, as I did, that your story is not over yet.

In their classic book on Spiritual Mentoring, Anderson and Reese give us various dimensions of the practice of spiritual mentoring. They say that spiritual mentoring:

. . . cultivates recognition of the already present action of God in the life of the mentoree through the Holy Spirit. (Keith R. Anderson and Randy D. Reese, Spiritual Mentoring [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999], 50.)

In a more recent book, Andersen expands on this:

Spiritual mentoring is not the inventive, individual work of the mentor, pastor, teacher or friend who tries to make something happen in the life of another. It is, instead, the work of reading what the Author is already writing in the days and nights of the mentee. Different than other forms of mentoring, spiritual mentoring starts with faith in the presence and voice of the living God. (Keith R. Anderson, Reading Your Life’s Story [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2016], 40.)

In other words, it is not the spiritual mentor who is primarily responsible to effect change in his mentoree. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore a large part of spiritual mentoring is learning to recognise what the Spirit is up to in the life of the mentoree.

I thought of this aspect of spiritual mentoring when Bernice and I met up with Roger and Janice recently. Roger Capps was the person most instrumental in helping me realise that my vocation was to be a teacher of the Word of God.

After my ‘A’ levels (pre-university), I was already thinking of going to seminary in preparation for ministering full time in church. Dad and mum convinced me that I should prepare for a secure job and serve God as a committed layman. They had suffered much during World War 2 and wanted their only son (and possible grandchildren) not to have to struggle to make ends meet. After all, they said, even the apostle Paul had a regular profession — tentmaker — while he served as a missionary.

My theology wasn’t that nuanced then. God does call people to serve in the marketplace. But there was the matter of my personal assignment. What was God calling me to do? Listening to my parents (this was the default response of my generation), I applied to the University of Singapore and, by some miracle, got a place in dental school. (If I applied today with those same grades, I wouldn’t even be on the waiting list.) I thought my life was settled. I would be a dentist and serve God in some lay capacity.

But throughout dental school, I continued to be concerned for the church. People were being won to the Lord but the quality of Bible teaching and preaching in most churches I knew was poor, so God’s people were not growing in Christ. For some reason this really bothered me. (I have since learnt that the Lord gives different burdens to different people.) I was even upset with Christ. After all, He was the Lord of the church. It was His responsibility to care for His church and that included calling out the pastors and Bible teachers the church needed. Why was He not doing so? Why was He failing in this key responsibility?

Then came the night that was to change my life. It was my final year of dental school. I was back in Penang on holiday. After prayer meeting one evening, a group of us adjourned to Gurney Drive for supper. Roger Capps was also in that group. Sometime that evening I turned to Roger and asked the fateful question: “Why wasn’t Jesus calling out more of His people to serve as pastor-teachers when the need was so obvious?” Roger’s answer was to change my life. “The Lord is calling but His people are not responding. You, for example.” Roger assures me that he is not always so direct. But that evening he was and it was a prophetic word that would change the whole trajectory of my life.

Looking back on that exchange that happened so many years ago (1977), it is clear to me now that Roger was just calling out what the Spirit had already been saying to me for some time. It wasn’t Roger who influenced me to enter the pastorate. It was the Spirit, God Himself. As a good mentor, Roger helped me recognise “the already present action of God”.

Bernice and I are committed to mentoring, encouraging and equipping others to mentor. But we are both clear that it is God who changes lives, not mentors. The mentor is a catalyst, a servant of the Lord who seeks to help the mentoree recognise the hand of God in his or her life. The need for spiritual mentoring is more critical than ever. But we need mentors who understand that God is the primary mentor.