Vicar Writes

Vicar Writes


All 2016 December Vicar Writes

25 December 2016 | Vicar Writes

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
John 3:16, King James Version.

I walked a total distance of 9.82 miles and took 21,166 steps last week. And so I was told, informed by one of these gadgets which I am sure some of you have as well.

That is quite pathetic. Such is modern life, or at least the kind of rather sedentary life I am living now.

When I was a teenager, I could cover that distance in an hour for that would be the distance I will have to cover on foot or on a bicycle, as these were the affordable ways I could go to my first church in Petaling Jaya.

That’s right. I was overwhelmed by the gospel and the love of Christ at 13. That changed everything for me. I began to learn to love God (and thus the frequent walker miles) in response to His love for me.

For God so loved my world…and there wasn’t much in it to be loved, or at least, that was how I would think then of my rather ordinary life and unusual family and relatives. There wasn’t much in my world that deserved any notice, let alone divine love. But I was part of the “ that whosoever believeth.” I was a breathing homo-sapiens who had a will to act and believe. That was good enough.

I already had vague ideas of God then. Through my own brother Clement, who first converted, I learned that God sent His only begotten Son. That He had a face, a voice and a life I could relate to. A fellow homo sapiens who is also divine, His name is Jesus. Among some of the first hymns I learned (and loved since then) is “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” That friendship touched and changed every area of my life.

At that age, I wasn’t thinking very much about what “perish” meant. But I did wonder about “eternal life.” As I said, my life wasn’t much then and the thought of an everlasting load of it was not an attractive notion. At a Bible Study group, I learned that it is a reference not just to a life without end but life of a certain kind. It can be lived with purpose as one centres it on following Jesus and fulfilling His call. It is a kind of life that is not snuffed out by mortality as it has an eternal purpose.

My Sundays, friends and community changed. My friends and community too. In fact, I hardly had any friends then, at least not the kind that were almost family, as I met in church. I loved the youth fellowship which met every Friday. And then on Sunday, it was the church service and yes, Sunday School.

I began to learn to love my Mum and surprised her on Mother’s Day with some penned affection. My school life was transformed as I saw my fellow students as people I can give to and not just get from. My studies took on a new purpose.

I have always felt lonely as a boy in a family that was busy trying to survive financially or busy gambling away (literally sometimes) whatever gains. In becoming a Christian, my personal
world was transformed.

I took the one step that mattered.

To choose to believe in Christ and follow Him. As you read this, you must be in one of our Christmas Services. You too can take your first step in response to God’s love for you through
His Son, Jesus Christ.

Among the thousands of steps you take for the week, and millions in life, this is the one step that will matter most.

18 December 2016 | Vicar Writes

...for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:11

There is a great deal of confusion about Christmas and its origins. A church here in Singapore declared recently that they will not celebrate Christmas anymore because it is a “pagan festival.” Really? My heart dropped.  

Christmas had a long tradition in the Church. It is a feast which is central to our liturgical year. By early 4th century, the Church was already celebrating Christmas on 25th December. Why that date? No one really knows. The Orthodox Church celebrates it on 7th January. The Council of Tours (567 AD) declared the 12 days after Christmas and before Epiphany as a unified festival, thus giving importance to both 25th Dec and 6th January. Now, everyone knows that Jesus was not born on 25th Dec or 6th Jan. (Hint - I was born very near one of these dates and this is factual!) But everybody knows that the date is not nearly as important as the spiritual truth the Church remembers and celebrates.  

As both society and the Church celebrated Christmas, to be expected, there were both religious and secular traditions, which have evolved. This is also influenced by the phases societies go through, from being Christian to post-Christian in some parts of the Western world today.  

In the Judeo tradition, Jews “redeemed” pagan festivals and cultic practices and put their Creator God at the centre of these. The Church do that to other festivals as well, including Jewish ones.  In fact, the Church had christianised Jewish festivals. Jewish Pentecost (giving of Law) is now the Church's Pentecost (giving of Spirit). Jewish Passover is now the Christian Triduum (Maundy Thursday to Easter). The weekly Sabbath (Saturday) was changed to Sunday. In each, the lordship of Christ is celebrated. 

The Church had always continued this Christmas tradition in a biblical way for purposes of worship, discipleship formation and outreach to the world. For the Church to return to Jewish festivals is to confuse her CHRISTian heritage. I met a Jew who converted and is now serving as a Pastor. He asked: “Why are some churches turning back to what I have left behind, at great sacrifice, to follow Jesus?” Good question! And I should add, we need to read the Book of Hebrews carefully.  

To do away with Christmas is sad on all fronts. Our children will grow up only with fesitvals like Chinese New Year or Deepavali. Jewish festivals? So, you want to introduce Bar Mitzvah to your boys? Don’t get me wrong. I have a deep respect for other faiths. I am just being self-critical and as one of the pastors of the Church saying: we should not sabotage our own. If we drop Christmas, we no longer have a festival where non-Christians can peer in and wonder. I used to be one of those. All those biblically rich religious carols (not talking about “how I saw Mummy kissing Santa Claus last night”), traditions and practices will be thrown away. Instead of passing on a legacy as custodians, we leave future generations bereft.  

Why is this happening in some churches? Ignorance of church history and our Christian heritage, the deep influence of secularism, an individualised biblicism, (where we interpret the Bible as we see fit in the here and now and ignore the Church in time and space) and a distrust of church scholarship/sound learning could be some of the reasons. 

I am ranting and venting. Pause. I am glad this column has a word limit.  

Blessed Christmas everyone. And continue to make Jesus Lord of everything.  

11 December 2016 | Vicar Writes

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

As the year ends, you will be hearing sermons on thanksgiving. What does this word mean? Even our Holy Communion, sometimes called eucharisteuo, came from the word “thanksgiving” in Greek.  

To be thankful as Christians is to acknowledge what God is doing. This is why an attitude of thanksgiving is an essential part of being a Christian and one reason why it is all over the Scriptures. We have to admit that in our younger Asian societies of migrants, where we have brought with us an ethos of survival (and thus competition), thanksgiving is not the most natural of our traits. 

I am not always thankful but I should be. Coming as a “migrant” to Singapore with only one bag in hand in 1984, I can still remember how lonely and homesick I felt in my first Christmas here. The blinking lights were decking the hostel building and synchronising to some carols. It was a setup to induce homesick feelings. 

I could never imagine then that I would be where I am today, family and church-wise. That Singapore can be truly my home in every sense of the word. I should be very thankful to the Lord for Hismany blessings. 

You remember the hymn “Count your blessings?” Try counting and naming your blessings. You need to be intentional but it is well worth the effort. It will change your perspective. 

Associated with thanksgiving is a spirit of encouragement and affirmation. If we can see what God is doing today and through others, it changes our perspective of people, the church and what we see around us. 

Being a young society, there is also a lack of confidence in our roots. We are not strong in humanities either (theology being  a part of that), being a largely technical society (and yes, just memorise Scriptures!) , we are not as confident when it comes to renewal, returning to first principles and thinking out of the box. And so, we blindly copy traditions and practices that have been handed down to us, often without understanding why. 

Coming down to what we do as Anglicans here in SAC, here is where in this “new season,” we need prayerful conversations on the “hows and whats” (and even whens!) of our Services. I think a lot of what we are doing, and also carry on conversations with those who are studied in liturgy and theology. No, we are not headed for some radical changes but tweaks are to be expected as even liturgy itself is dynamic and in need of renewal with the passage of time. 

In being thankful and affirming, we see what the Father is doing in our midst and align ourselves to His purpose. 

That said, it is not always possible to do things perfectly. There are so many different parties working together to ensure every service runs
well but these coordinations are not always perfect. I can still recall in a Good Friday Service in my previous parish where the preacher, who was supposed to do 3 short meditations decided to do three full length sermons instead, even though he has been carefully briefed. The Choir director was on the brink of a nervous breakdown, and seated with me on stage kept gesturing for me to do something. I sat calmly and put on a brave front, knowing that there is not much I could do to hold back the over-enthusiastic preacher. The service has to go on even if its length is not welcome. 

And so,  I here end with the oft quoted line from the movie Hotel Marigold: “Everything will be alright in the end so if it is not alright it is not the end.” 

Indeed, let’s learn to give thanks in everything!

4 December 2016 | Vicar Writes

Not many of us were aware, but the first Sunday of Advent marks the start of another liturgical year. Within the liturgical seasons of the church, the Christian faith is not only conveyed through the weekly celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on the Lord’s day, it also commemorates God’s history of redemption in Christ, anchored in the three principal feasts – Easter Day, Ascension Day and Pentecost. 

From a macro perspective of the rhythm of the festivities (high points) and ordinariness (ebbs) within a liturgical year, different elements of the dynamic of the Christ-life is heightened and celebrated. For instance, the church enters into an expectation and celebration of the coming of Christ during the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle (Nov-Feb) and repentance and rejoicing during the Lent/Triduum/Easter cycle (Feb-April). These two high points in the Calendar is interspersed by two periods of Ordinary time characterized by a focus on the teaching of the church woven within its sense of continued mission to the world within the active presence of the Spirit. 

It helps the church to proclaim and live out the comprehensive set of major Christian themes. Some examples of how this is worked out would be for our Services to focus on the cost of discipleship during the season of Lent or the importance of being continually filled with the Spirit during season of Pentecost.

Undoubtedly, the liturgical year has been commonly presented as if it were an effective lesson plan educating about the life of the church. We recall the “bobble-head” Christianity I spoke off last weekend. However, this perspective is secondary in importance compared to the reality of its power in transforming our Christian life. Massey Shepherd states the traditional view with vigour and clarity:

The Christian year is a mystery through which every moment and all the times and seasons of this life are transcended and fulfilled in that reality which is beyond time. Each single holy day, each single gospel periscope in the sequence of the year, is of itself a sacrament of the whole gospel. Each single feast renews the fullness and fulfilment of the Feast of feasts, our death and resurrection with Christ. 

The church should not be conceived as another entity within the larger creation but as prior to creation. The church is chosen in Christ before the creation of the world (Eph 1:4). Shaping our lives and giving priority to the liturgical year reminds us of this. 

Observing the liturgical year with its repeated cycles also allow for a formative, pedagogical and collective experience of church life. In being comprehensive, it also helps us to reflect on the fuller reality of life and faith with her fair share of joys and pains, clarity and confusion, joys of holiness and the despair of sinful living. In our deepest pains, we are reminded that it is always a little while as we pilgrim from earth to heaven, where no segment of time is static. 


Note: This article draws from a paper written by one of my students (Ian Chew) in the Anglicanism Course at Trinity Theological College.

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About Thanksgiving and Renewal

04 Dec |

Living through the Liturgical Year