Month: August, 2013

Questions we Should Not Ask

“The only dumb question is the one not asked,” a teacher once said to our class.  I was an impressionable teen, and quite taken to this simple, clean and powerful adage.  It changed the way I thought — until the found exceptions.  It is still a truism in a classroom context.  But it is not so true in life.

“Honey, am I the most beautiful woman to you?” a woman may ask in need of affirmation from her husband.  But it is a question fraught with danger.  Once, I was preaching, and I mentioned that many couples asked, “What if I had married someone else? What if I get to start my life over, will I still marry the same man or woman?” Several people immediately turned to their spouses with questions like, “Have you ever thought about that? Is that true for you?”

Such a question has only one “right” answer, and it may be a lie. We sometimes ask questions that compel people to lie.  If you have a missing cake that you think your house mates in college might have taken, you can go around fuming, “Who stole my cake? Did you steal my cake?” You know everyone will say “No” and one person will be lying. On the other hand, if you asked, “Did anyone take my cake by mistake?” You stand a much better chance of getting a confession.

I recall another time when I mentioned that some guys will keep a little something with them in their wallet just in case they get lucky with a girl.  I immediately saw a mother turn to her teenage son and ask, “Do you have one in your wallet?” Do we expect the son to say “Yes mom, actually, I have two”?

I like to suggest we have a responsibility as Christians to ask questions in such a way as to promote truthfulness.  We should not corner people to shame in confession.  It makes that confession much harder.  This forcing of a confession in the context of shame is the practice of communist China during the Cultural Revolution.  It is not Christian.

Christian confession is compassionate, sensitive, and seeks to point people to restoring their relationship with God.  Where there is wrong done to one another, it is always right to encourage the perpetrator to confess.  We can ask in such a way that promotes denial or repentance.  The choice ought to be clear. Christian confession is a product of repentance, not a result of accusation. Ask in such a way that produces repentance and confession.


Apostle Peter – The Fisherman

Peter and Andrew were brothers. James and John were also brothers. They were in the fishing business.  That is to say they were fishermen who owned fishing boats, not fishermen who were employed to catch fish.  In that sense, they were entrepreneurs or business owners.

We don’t know how many boats they owned, but there is a hint of it in John 21.  After the resurrection of Jesus, Peter wanted to go fishing.  It was night and about the right time to fish.  When Peter was following Jesus, it is likely they employed others to fish for them.  Alternatively, they could have leased out their boats to other fishermen.  In either case, Peter should have a vacant and fully equipped boat that he could just take and go fishing.  This suggests to us that he had at least one standby boat.

In this event, we learn there were seven disciples.  They went fishing with Peter.  This suggests to us the size of the fishing boats.  Some fishing boats could take only two people.  But this could accommodate at least seven people.

When Jesus was in a storm with his disciples, it is possible that this was a boat belonging to Peter and Andrew, or James and John (Mark 4:36-41).  This boat was big enough to have a hold where Jesus could sleep.  This boat cannot be an open boat for just two people.

1st century boat found

A first century fishing boat was excavated and it was length 26½ ft x width 7½ ft x height 4½ ft.  There   seems  to   be enough space for the description of  activities on the boats,   but   it   would   be   a   tight  fit.  Josephus,  the  Jewish  historian suggested that the boat can hold 15 people.  Perhaps our understanding of space requirements today is different from that time.

Is it possible that this excavated boat is still a little small, and there may be bigger boats?  For that we wait for future discoveries.

In Luke 5:10, we are told that Peter and Andrew, James and John with their father Zebedee were partners in the fishing business.

We do not have details about this business relationship, but it was a good relationship.  They were hanging out together outside of their fishing business.

When they left their nets to follow Jesus, it does not mean they sold off their business.  In all likelihood, they kept their business which provided a source of income for them and their families.

Reconstruction of Boat

God is Answering our Prayer Before we Know it

“Hi Melodie, how’s everything?” I greeted my daughter over the phone, around 12.05am on Saturday. She was 12 hours later than we are, should have arrived at the test center located in center city Philadelphia about 30 minutes before the test reporting time of 12.30 pm, Friday. If she does not make this test for any reason, she will have to wait another year. I have been praying and fasting for her for about 24hrs, and decided to phone so I can pray with her. The people @theWell have also been praying for her, but I had not asked anyone to fast with me. This test is important to us, but not something I was prepared to ask others to join me in a fast. Just two days earlier, I was also praying and fasting for Krystal (our second daughter) for her third teaching certification test. God heard our prayers and she has passed.

“We are still on the road,” Melodie said.

I prayed with her, and after the prayer, learned from the rather desperate sounding Lily in the background that they were in some sort of trouble.

“I-95 is shut down, and we are using local roads. We programmed the GPS to avoid I-95, but we are still stuck in traffic,” Melodie tells me, with only the sheerest hint of tension in her voice. “The ETA according to the GPS is 12.40pm.”

This is disaster!

It’s a good thing Melodie did not seem stressed out. The GPS gives minimum time assuming no traffic. She is to report 12.30pm for the test and they are very strict about timeliness. Late reporting automatically disqualifies test takers. First we prayed. Then I got online again searched for real-time Philadelphia traffic. So, I was on the phone giving directions to Melodie to relay to Lily (who was driving), to avoid traffic hotspots in Philadelphia.

I was waiting for my internet service to be installed. The ISP gave me a limited 3G data card which I could use while waiting for my service. Sister V learned of this and loaned me her dongle so the card could be used. A week earlier, mom had handed me a plastic bag of wires, and other electronic stuff. On Friday night, I opened it and found a prepaid phone card that was still valid. On a whim, I went online using the dongle and bought a prepaid card that allowed easy overseas calling. I was calling Melodie using that card.

Melodie then called the test center to explain that the Interstate 95 shut down due to an accident, and the resulting massive traffic congestion throughout the city as all cars diverted from the Interstate. And our great surprise, the test center said they will let her take the test if she makes it by 1.30pm! The traffic was brutal and it is by no means certain that she will make 1.30pm.

I stayed on the phone and online giving driving directions. When they had passed the traffic hotspots, I hung up and desperately cried out to God. I prayed for 3 things: (1) safety, as people in a hurry can become careless; (2) that she’ll get there on time and be allowed to take the test; (3) that she’ll pass the test (which we will know eventually).

I like to believe that my directions helped. By God’s grace, she arrived 1.20 pm and was allowed to take the test.

Serendipitous? I see the good and merciful hand of God already at work even before I knew it. Why should mom pass me the bag of stuff? Why did I open it after more than a week, but on the same night to find a valid phone card and a working phone? Why did the ISP provide a 3G card without a dongle? Why did sister V loan me her dongle? Why did the extremely strict test center reporting rules allow an hour delay in reporting? And how is it possible that I should be giving road directions here in Singapore to my wife winding through the streets of Philadelphia to get our daughter to her test?

This is the amazing hand of God!

But God is not done.

At about 5.40am, I got a phone call from Krystal. “Not so good,” she replied to my query. Mom is at Target and she is not able to start the car.”

“But that is good,” I replied. The car did not break down on the way to the test center; it broke down only when mom is on her way home.”

This is not life and death. Precisely because it is not life and death and I see God’s wonderful love and care for us, and his incredible concern for even the little things in my life that I marvel and praise him.

Thank you Lord! I stand amazed at how you work. You have answered my feeble prayer effort with marvelous goodness. Who can compare with you? I praise O Lord!

PE@theWell

(26 August, 2013, on the events of 16/17 Aug, 2013)

Arrive Safely at Death

“To arrive safely at death” is powerful irony. It calls us to the reality that we die.  It also calls us to the reality that too many live such timid lives as though by being timid we can avoid death.  Whether we march, dance or tiptoe to death, we all get there. The issue is not about meeting death.  The issue is how we have lived our life when we get there.

Afraid of failure. Afraid to work too hard. Afraid of any uncertainty. And for the risks we cannot avoid, there is an insurance company quite willing to bear that risk for you. We can tiptoe through life as though it makes a difference when we arrive at death’s door.

Christians can be among the most risk adverse people. We seem to think that when doing God’s work, we cannot risk failure.  In part, we are conditioned by the belief that if we are doing God’s work, we can never fail.  If we fail, it is not God’s work.  This leads us to a spirit of timidity. So we choose the least risk, and the options most likely to succeed and call it God’s work.

Jesus chose Peter to lead the twelve because he was bold.  He made mistakes and we mock his failures.  In part, it is because we are timid and are afraid of failures. Peter pushed himself to the limits of faith.  He is the one who asked Jesus to let him walk on water.  He is passionate about Jesus and eager to test what it means to trust in Jesus. 

Peter denied Jesus because he placed himself in the courtyard of the high priest when Jesus was tried. Only John was with Peter, and John was somewhat protected because he was known to the high priest. Peter took the most risk, and failed.  But it was part of God’s plan for Peter; that he will fail because he was tempted while the other disciples were not.

While Satan would put all the disciples to the test, Jesus said he had a special prayer for Peter, “But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith will not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32).

The tiptoeing Christian will not risk anything for God, will not invest in God’s work, will not stretch his faith even as God is calling him. He will never know victory because he never risked failure in spiritual battle.


Apostle Peter – Part 2

Bethsaida, about 2 km from the shore
Peter’s first hometown was Bethsaida (John 1:44; 12:21) before he moved to Capernaum (Matthew 8:5, 14).  There is both historical and spiritual significance in this.

There is dispute on the location of Bethsaida [Aramaic: House of Fishing].  The traditional site of Bethsaida (Julias) was under the jurisdiction of and raised by Philip the Tetrarch.  The chief problem with this site is that it is about 2 km from the shore of Galilee and it does not make a good fishing village.  Some have suggested Peter’s Bethsaida is a location yet not discovered, or not yet identified among the excavated sites, but one that is much closer to Capernaum where Peter eventually moved. There have been some suggestions, but none is confirmed. So for now, we will work with Bethsaida Julias as the site of Peter’s first home (that we know of). John is the one who recounts this detail. And John and James were fishing partners with Peter and Andrew. As far as John was concerned, Peter and Andrew were the guys from Bethsaida.  This suggests the move was fairly recent.  In any case, it suggests they were adults when they moved.

We do not know why Peter and Andrew moved to Capernaum.  If they had lived in Bethsaida Julias, it is unlikely that they were fishermen there as the coast was 2 km away. Of course it is possible that they were fishermen and were tired of making a daily commute and decided to move closer to the shore.

I like to suggest that when Peter and Andrew moved to Capernaum, it was somewhat   tied   to  their  entering  into   the fishing business with John and James, with their father Zebedee. Perhaps Peter and Andrew relocated to be closer to their business partners who had a better location than their own.  Perhaps they moved first and found James and John later.

At some point after they were business partners, Jesus called them to be his disciples.  We do not know the interval, but when we factor in Peter and Andrew’s move from Bethsaida and their fishing partnership, it could have happened not long before Jesus called them to follow him.

Peter and Andrew, James and John could view the call to discipleship two ways.  One is to argue that they have a newly formed and good business going on.  God couldn’t possibly want them to put that on hold, or on the backburner to follow Jesus.  The other way is to say that even though their aim was to build a business, and they came together for that purpose, God had a higher plan for them.  He was redirecting them to follow Jesus and put their fishing business on the backburner — they should follow Jesus and just wait and see what would happen to their business.

Bethsaida - The Fisherman House

We know they decided to follow Jesus. Their cost was to become absentee business owners rather than owner-operators. They had to let go of their business operations.  That too, was risk. That too was a step of faith. Especially for Peter and Andrew.  They moved from Bethsaida to Capernaum for a reason, and it wasn’t Jesus.  They had to make significant adjustments to follow Jesus.

Taking Risk for God

We will not accomplish anything for God when we do not try anything.  This world celebrates the successful, but Jesus looks at the person who dares to try.  The surest way to never to fail as a Christian is to never attempt great things for God. 

The world defines Peter by his failure.  He is the one who denied Jesus.  Jesus himself predicted Peter’s denial.  But there was something about Peter that caused Jesus to say, “once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32). The one who will fail is the one chosen to strengthen others beyond his own failure.

The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man (1 Cor 1:25). We look to leaders who have never fallen.  Jesus looks to men who would take risk for him — even if they fail. But there will be a redemption with their failure.  They will grow much more than those who did not try.  They will know what it means to push the envelop of their faith, and not live in spiritual mediocrity because they are afraid to fail.

There is a reason why the blandest people seem to lead churches.  People choose those who never fail, even if it is because they never try.

Yes, Jesus chose Peter despite his failure. But why did he choose Peter?  Is it not because he was the boldest?

We remember Peter denied Jesus three times.  But we forget the other disciples fled.  Only Peter and John were there when they tried Jesus.  The other disciples were not around to deny Jesus. John was never placed in that predicament.

Peter followed Jesus from the front.  He had that special turn of character that did not depend on the actions of others. He was willing to take spiritual risk. While the other disciples followed Jesus, they often looked to Peter and followed Peter following Jesus — and then sometimes not — as at the trial of Jesus.

Christians today look for two types of leaders: those who are bland and if they are bold, they must not have failed in any dramatic way.  Christians can live with non-performance among their leaders, but cannot live with failure.  Jesus cannot tolerate a lukewarm church, but he chose a man who would try even when his spiritual strength is not yet equal to his task. 

When Peter denied Jesus, Jesus did not reprimand him; he only looked at Peter in love. Jesus chose the only disciple who denied him to lead the others to confess him. What mystery of grace and power in Jesus our Lord!


Apostle Peter – Part 1

Artist-perception-of-Peters-denial.jpg

Peter was probably the oldest of Jesus’ disciples.  This led to a consistent portrait of Peter as an old man. In some instances, as a very old man. The artists seem to forget that he was young once!

Peter-deny-Jesus-2-Rembrant.jpg

When Jesus began his ministry, Jesus was about 32/3 years old.  It is likely that Peter was not much older (if indeed he was older) than Jesus.  At the time when Jesus walked the earth, we should expect Peter to be no older than his mid-thirties.

Peter-weeping-after-denying-Jesus.png
The representation of Peter in “The Passion of the Christ” is closer to the age of Peter at that time.  It may still be a little too old, but that depends on how quickly an individual ages.

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When Peter first met Jesus, he was living in Bethsaida.  Not long after, he moved to Capernaum.

Peter was married.  We do not have the name of his wife in the Bible. We also do not know if they had children. One possible reason for this silence is to protect them during this time when persecution, or the threat of persecution, was ever present.

Peter’s ministry started with the Jews, but it very quickly included Gentiles.  He was originally based in Jerusalem, but eventually went to Rome where he served a significant length of time.

While in Rome, he bore witness for Jesus.  Mark was this companion assistant and he recorded Peter’s account of Jesus.  This eventually became the Gospel according to Mark.  Mark’s Gospel is really Peter’s portrait of Jesus Christ.  But in it, we also find Peter’s portrait of himself.  It is a humble representation of his own foibles and Jesus’ greatness.

Matthew and Luke used Peter’s (Mark’s) account as their framework.  John did not.  So John’s representation of Peter is much kinder than Peter’s representation of himself.

Two things stand out in the early church. The individual who did wrong is most likely the one who made it public.  The other Christians represented the failure more kindly than the person who failed.

This stands in contrast to the thinking of the world, which has also crept into the church.  The wrong-doer denies fault or minimizes it, and third-parties, including Christians, can be vicious in their attacking the brother who has fallen.

Apostle Peter 05: Jesus, My Superhero (Part 2)

Bible Reference: Mark 1:1-20

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Apostle Peter 05: Jesus, My Superhero (Part 1)

Bible Reference: Mark 1:1-20

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