I am designing a course on the biblical imagination and spirituality of Eugene Peterson.
Eugene Peterson’s lifelong focus is on soul care, especially on spiritual formation and pastoral nurturing. This course will be a dialogue with his thoughts, teaching, and applications using his Eerdmans spiritual theology series: Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (2005);Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (2006); The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus Is the Way (2007); Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers (2008); and Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (2010).
The expected major outcome of this course is that students will have reflected on where they are in their spiritual journey, understand the dynamics of formative and transformative aspects of their spiritual lives, and be equipped to nurture their and communal spiritual growth both physically and in Cyberspace. The focus on this course is on spiritual formation and spiritual theology.
We are living in fear. One tiny RNA virus named SARS-CoV-2, averaging 0.125 micron in length, brought our civilization as we know it to its knees and caused great health and socio-economic disruptions. With the COVID-19 pandemic infecting 35 million people with more than a million deaths, all of us irrespective of our social status, ethnicity or country’s healthcare level of care are at risk. Especially vulnerable are those who are over 65 years of age with co-morbidities. Countries, states and cities are forced into lockdowns where everyone is confined to their homes to prevent the spread of the virus. The economic ramifications of the lockdowns with retrenchments, closing of companies and millions falling below the poverty line is a sad unfolding drama. For many of us, our fear is our constant companion in these times. We are fearful of our health, our safety, our future and of the future of our communities. After about seven months, this fear has permeated into our subconscious and is manifesting as irritability, anger, anxiety and depression. Often we do not know why we are feeling the way we do. Some people have cleverly named it “Covid-19 fugue” but it is actually a bondage of fear. This bondage of fear kept us blind to the very thing we need – hope.
Zephaniah, a minor prophet speaking at a time of great socio-economic disruptions caused by the Babylonian conquest (death, pestilence, famine), noted, “The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17 NIV). While we are in bondage, it is easy to lose sight of the Lord who offers hope. Instead, we are drawn into the downward spiral of fear, anger and anxiety to deep depression. This depression is different from the medical condition depression which needs expert psychiatric/psychological help and sometimes medications. This depression caused by the bondage of fear is caused by our present circumstances, the resilience of our spirits, and the power of principalities and power that hold sway in this fallen world.
Paul writing to the Corinthian Christians who lived in a world similar to ours with its natural and socio-political disruptions explained how to break the bondage of fear in 2 Corinthians 10:3–5 (NIV)
3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
With the spiritual weapons supplied by the Holy Spirit, we can take responsibility for our mental health by breaking the bondage of fear. There are three steps we can take to break this bondage of fear.
First, we name the fear. Naming, in the biblical sense, is knowing. We have many fears so it is helpful for us to ask the Holy Spirit to help us identify or name them. Then we subject each of these fears to the following rubric.
A fear situation where we have control and can act – situation mastery
This is a situation where we have the ability to control and to take action. One example is washing hands, wearing masks, staying at home, social distancing and attending services online. Here we have situation mastery. There is no need to fear being infected by the virus.
2. A fear situation where we can’t control but can act – ceaseless striving
A situation where we can do something but are in a situation where we have no control over. One example is a person suffering from cancer. That person has no control over the cancer in his/her body. However, the person can do something about seeking treatment. Often, many people are not satisfied with sticking to the treatment of a medical oncologist. They will try alternative medical treatments, faith healings, herbs and even some obscure claims from the internet. This is ceaseless striving. Our fear drives us to keep striving, often in vain.
3. A fear situation where we can control but can’s act – accepting
Here is a situation where we have control but can’t act. This is often a very fearful situation as our natural instinct is to do something. Not being able to do anything is very stressful and anxiety provoking. One example is if we own a hotel, we have total control over the total operations of the hotel. Unfortunately, our hotel is in a country or city under pandemic lockdown. We cannot act to get guests because of the movement control order. We fear that we will lose the hotel to the bank. Millions of business owners, especially the smaller ones, live with this fear. It is also likely that many churches will be closing because of the pandemic.
4. A fear situation where we can’t control and can’t act –letting go
There are situations we find ourselves in that we have no control over and there is nothing we can do about it. Some of us live in fear for our loved ones who live in another country or city. We not only worry for their safety but we fear for them too. These are very fearful situations but if we are able to name them, we can break the bondage of these fears.
Second step after naming our fears is to befriend them. If our fear falls under the category of situation mastery, do something about it. We will find that the hold fear has on us, as we do something about the situation, lessening. In the ceaseless striving category, we should choose to be realistic and not just act to do something. In the last two category, it is about accepting and let the Lord do what He has purposed for our lives. This is where trust and hope come in.
The third and final step is to continue praying. Fear will always try to keep us in bondage and away from our trust and hope in God. We have to be vigilant in our thinking. Do not be distracted and let our thoughts be drawn to where our fears dwell, especially in ceaseless striving and areas where we must let go and let God. It is so easy to be drawn back into the bondage of fear. Paul has the antidote for us in Philippians 4:6–8 (NIV)
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
We are living in difficult and fearful times. Frederick Buechner in Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith writes, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” It is easy to let our fears take control of our lives. We may be living in bondage to fear without knowing it. God has given us the means to break this bondage and the freedom to live with our fears. The key is trust and hope in the Lord. May we live in freedom from fear. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer is a good guard against living in bondage of fear.
Spiritual formation inventory is a spiritual assessment tool to obtain a snapshot of our spiritual life at a certain moment in our spiritual journey. This tool will help us to discover what areas in our spiritual practices are strong and what the weaknesses are. For effective spiritual formation or spiritual growth, balanced spiritual life and practices is essential. Too much emphasis on one aspect of our spiritual practices at the expense of others may lead to an unhealthy spirituality.
The essential elements or components of the spiritual formation may be summarized by the acronym SHALOM
Story-telling is the living our lives in communion with God
Heart is to abide in Christ or growing into Christlikeness
Action is in ministry to others or service
Learning is living in the Word or spiritual learning
Opening to the community as in fellowship and community building
Missional is living as a witness to the world
Shalom is a Hebrew word often translated as peace. However shalom means more than peace (as the absence of strive) as it also denotes perfection– as in perfection of God’s original creation, Jesus as the perfector of our faith and himself, and as the perfection of man’s reconciliation with God.
You are invited to join me for this Zoom session. Even though it is for Medical and Dental professionals and students, you are welcome to join us even if you are not a healthcare worker. It is open to all who are interested in Christian spiritualities in this pandemic period.
Webinar Lecture “Discerning the Call in the Marketplace”
Date: Tuesday, 15 September 2020
Time: 8.00pm – 9:30 pm
Committed Christians are often concerned about discovering God’s calling – to be and become; how they are to live and have their being in their workplace and marketplace. Central to this is how to maintain the vitality of their spiritual life and growth in the modern lifestyle that is extremely hectic and exhausting especially in this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. They struggle with the theology of God’s calling and vocation. This webinar will examine the issue of hectic and busy lifestyles, discerning God’s callings, and how to nurture the spiritual life in the marketplace.
About the Speaker:
Dr Alex Tang MD PhD is a consultant paediatrician in a private hospital in Johor Bahru. He is an associate professor of paediatrics in Monash University Clinical School Johor Bahru. Alex is a practical theologian and biomedical ethicist and teaches in several seminaries in Asia and elsewhere. He is a spiritual and retreat director. Alex has authored numerous books, book chapters, monographs, and articles. His research interests are in Christian spiritualities, spiritual formation, and biomedical ethics. Alex is an elder in a Presbyterian church, is married with grown children and growing grandchildren.
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted all of society including the church. Uncertainty about the future, economic hardship and a sense of loss has affected many members of the church. As we grapple with this crisis it is important to ask relevant questions about the future and look at this pandemic from a spiritual perspective.
While the COVID-19 pandemic poses a great challenge it also offers us a vital opportunity to reflect deeply on our lives, the church, our community and the direction we have been heading. We have an opportunity to let go of what distracts us from Christ and deepen and broaden our individual relationship with Him. It also allows for the transformation of the church by God. The church is the people, the body of Christ and not a physical building. Few of us are able to recognise that many of our current church systems and structures are traditions grown over years. What started as good ideas and a response to needs, became traditions and later fixed structures. We should be careful not to become dependent on our church systems but rather on the living God. This crisis allows for us to refocus on the needs of the people and a reformation of the church and ministry environments.
With this in view a number of us have attempted to spiritually discern what God is saying and have put together a document that tries to offer practical guidance for the church and individuals on how to move forward and support their congregation and community. At the same time it explores ideas on how the body of Christ can move from being ‘recipients’ to active followers of Jesus. Personal spiritual formation and ideas on church transformation are considered with a view to produce a vibrant and meaningful body of Christ, one that is immersed in the community.
The document covers many areas including:
The expected immediate future with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Changing ministry environments and the response of the church.
Establishing an effective digital church.
Adjusting physical services to make them safer to attend.
Key prevention safety measures to implement.
Restructuring the church office environment.
Supporting the congregation to grow spiritually as individuals.
Supporting our pastors, church workers, their families and smaller churches.
Supporting rural, indigenous church communities and the poor.
Checklists are offered for specific areas to aid planning.
The COVID-19 pandemic will probably be with us for the next 1-2 years and we must guard from slipping back to ‘business as usual’ once the threat is passed. It offers the church of our time to have a ‘great awakening’ – a time to live church rather than ‘go to church’. A time to discover God, not just our Saviour and Father, but also as Friend and Beloved, awaits us.
Breath is life. Since the first human became animated by the breath of God, breathing is essential to being alive. When our breathing stops, our life ends. Our breathing thus is an intrinsic component of being alive. Jesus is God incarnate in a human body. Our bodies are now the temple of the Holy Spirit. The physical bodies in which our soul and spirit embody are Christ’s body on earth. So our bodies are sacred. Our breaths are sacred too as it is a gift of God, a means of grace, and a means of life. We pray with our minds using language. We can also pray with our bodies. The breath prayer is one of the early forms of prayer, started once we draw our first breath as a newborn baby. However, the breath prayer that we are using nowadays was formulated by the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the second to third Century C.E. Desert Fathers and Mothers were people who left the cities to go into the wilderness of the deserts of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt to be close to God. They were often solitary and committed their lives to prayer. From them came this tradition of prayer by being aware of our breathing. By intentional breathing slowing and still ourselves, we seek the presence of God. This is a form of wordless prayer, a contemplative type of prayer.
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”
Matthew 21:12–13 (NIV)
12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”
It is all their fault. Serve them right. When we read the above accounts of Jesus clearing the temple of moneychangers and merchants, we applauded dispassionately. It was all their fault. Then we get into an academic discussion on whether Jesus cleared the temple once or twice, as there was mention of two Passovers. It was always their fault; the merchants, temple religious authorities, thieves, robbers, and other bad guys. Jesus was right to punish them. When the COVID-19 outbreak was first detected in China, we sat back smugly saying, serve them right for eating these exotic animals. The pandemic spread to the rest of the world and now it is our neighbor’s fault; those who attended religious gatherings or those unhygienic migrants workers from undeveloped countries. This separation of them and us is the result of our rationalization and the need to pass the blame. We need to maintain our sense of superiority and righteousness. We do this by dividing everyone into two categories. The ‘us’ who is good and the ‘them’ who is not. That is why we can read these two events of Jesus cleansing the temple dispassionately and in the third person. We are not involved. Jesus is not angry with us. We are the good guys.
The Holy Spirit will not let us be. He whispers in the core of our spiritual being that we are the sinners. We cheat, steal, lie, and take advantage of our fellow human beings like those Jesus drove out of the temple. There is no us and them. That is our sinful self-justification to allow us to hate someone else. With 1.2 million people infected, 69,480 deaths, 208 countries involved, with most areas under lockdown, this single molecular virus has brought the world as we knew it to a standstill. Even if we find a treatment or a vaccine tomorrow, our world will not be the same again. The fallout will include a worldwide depression. Millions of lives and families will be affecting many facing poverty and famine. In times like this, we need to hear a message of hope. Almost all pastors preaching online speaks of hope. And that is what the gospel is all about. It is a message of hope. We, however, need to learn about lamentations and repentance.
Lamentations is a grief process. We lament at the passing away of a way of life – pre-Covid life. It is a loss. We grieve for the millions of people affected directly and indirectly. Our grief is for those who had died, are struggling for their lives on ventilators in ICUs, and those suffering in quarantine. We are restless and grieve for the loss of personal freedom of movement and gathering. We grieve for the restriction of our religious activities. Now is the time for us to lament. The Book of Lamentations was about grief when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. It was a lamentation of a people to help them cope with the loss of hope, and surprisingly to find hope. In the middle of the five chapters which made up the whole book, Jeremiah made this surprising statement, “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22–23 NIV).
We need to repent of our sins and our failures. This pandemic has us all confined to our homes. It forced us out of our hurried active lifestyle to a sort of hermitage existence. It threw away all the way we are used to doing church: Sunday worship in a huge auditorium, energy driving music, and activism in our church work. At one stroke, we are left ‘imprisoned’ in our homes with the bible and the Holy Spirit. This enforced time is an excellent time to review our spiritual life and our spiritual-faith-communities.
Was our spiritual life and church life worship acceptable to God?
Was it a performance designed to impress others?
Are our faith communities formative communities that empower every single one to edify each other and draw closer to God?
Are we just jumping from one program to another, like a hamster on a treadmill?
If our lifestyle and church are not acts of worship to God, then we really need to repent because it would not have been pleasing to God. The author of Chronicles stated, “…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14 NIV). This verse contains a call to action, repentance, and a promise of hope.
Jesus cleansed the temple and in some ways, he may be cleansing us too because now we are the temple. In this time of a pandemic, there is a need for hope to sustain us. However, there is also a need to lament, and to repent. There is no them and us. We are all in this together. John Donne, an English poet, and Churchman wrote For Whom the Bells Toll
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.