CHRISTMAS - HOPE BEYOND OPTIMISM
“CHRISTMAS - HOPE BEYOND OPTIMISM”
Rev. Dr. Ong Hwai Teik
by Bishop Dr. Ong Hwai Teik, December 2013
I have just returned from the double joy of sharing in an event that celebrated the birth of the Saviour of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ, and which is done in a truly “beyond mere sloganeering” 1 Malaysia reality.
I was privileged to deliver an opening speech at the Gaya Christmas Celebration 2013 as the Episcopal Head of the Methodist Church in Malaysia. This is in view of the fact that the main organiser from the Sabah Council of Churches event this year is our own Sabah Provisional Annual Conference. I was told that that was the 9th edition of the annual event. The whole of Lintasan Deasoka in the centre of Kota Kinabalu was cordoned off for the celebration of Christmas. The celebration held from 10th to 13th December 2013 in carnival like atmosphere, brought together Kadazans, Dusuns, Chinese, Malays, Indians and other bumiputras of the “land below the wind”. This year the theme is Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.
This fresh experience has again renewed hope for me in dreaming of a truly 1 Malaysia. Indeed it does not surprise us that the Christians in Sarawak and Malaysia have issued strong press statements that categorically remind those in authority and the public that Malaysia is a moderate country in which the freedom of religion is guaranteed and is to be practised freely and without restrictions as guaranteed by the Malaysian Constitution. It is one thing for our Prime Minister to proclaim to an international audience that Malaysia spearheads the global moderate movement where religion is concerned, but then the reality in his own backyard does not reflect what he professes. (See also the press statements from the Sarawak association of Churches, and Sabah Council of Churches and others in this edition).
As I connect with each of our 6 Annual Conferences and also our Persidangan Missi Sengoi at the Methodist annual conference sessions in the month of November this year, many in our Methodist Church in Malaysia family have expressed great concern and unhappiness with regards to the recent court ruling that prohibits The Herald of the Catholic Church from using the word “Allah”. Some of our members, both young and old, from our Sarawak Iban Annual Conference said to me, “Bishop, how can the court say that the word “Allah” is not integral to our Christian faith and practice; we have always used “Allah Taalla” - even before Malaysia was formed.”
As we continue to encounter such challenges to our faith as a Christian community in our beloved land, let us remember the One in whom we have placed our hope. I am reminded of NRS Psalm 130:7 “O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. 8 It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.”
To the believing Israelite of faith, the mercy of God remains an unexplained mystery. He personally discovered the reality of this truth by inference from the astonishing and inexplicable fact that such a sinful and continually disobedient nation had not been finally destroyed. For believers today, that mercy remains a mystery, but we can see much further into it than Israel of old, as we see the supreme expression of the being of the incomparably loving God in choosing to be born a man to die on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice for man’s sins. Advent and Christmas bring this mystery into sharp focus once again.
When we re-visit the old proverb that says “While there is life there is hope” –we can see its truth because since God is the God of life, there is always hope. Hence it is not uncommon for us to read the refrain of “I cry, I wait” in the book of psalms. The Bible takes the clear and unchanging view that the last word is never with sin and death. There is always hope for restoration and renewal – especially when the people of God “humble themselves, seek His face and turn from their wicked ways.”
In Romans 15:13, Paul declares “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” It is to be noted that Paul roots the source of hope in the “God of hope”. As such, a distinction can be drawn that our hope as believers is not mere optimism which lives by evidence. Such optimism dies when hard data points to defeat.
Contrary to this, people of hope live by faith, so that their hope lives on even after the life-support system of tangible evidence has been cut off. The vital signs of reason are most welcome, but people of hope dig deep into their faith and drink from it when the vital signs of reason grow ever faint. Believers are a people of hope because they are a people of faith. In fact, to have hope we have to have faith – in the “God of hope”. Because of faith in the God of hope, hope will have a greater staying power than mere optimism. Our hope powered by the person, presence and power of the Holy Spirit will keep going – even after optimism gives up. Ours is a hope beyond optimism.
While there is little in our national landscape to be optimistic about, the Church in Malaysia during this Yule-tide season is reminded of our God of hope. It is timely that the life of Nelson Mandela (who died on the 5 December 2013) is celebrated in the season of Advent. His life had brought so much hope to a long suffering and oppressed people – caused by a white supremacist government which had ruled for a long time in South Africa. He embodied reconciliation and forgiveness – mirroring the Saviour of whom he had learnt about in his Methodist schooling and own spiritual journey. This one man who was willing to lay down his life for the ideals of equality, freedom, justice and dignity for all in his longsuffering nation sacrificed 27 years of his life in imprisonment. Many of his generation openly admit that they never dreamt that South Africa would become a free democratic nation, and a reconciled rainbow nation at that – in their own life-time! He elicited from the world community acknowledgement of his great achievement of realizing hope, reminding a world that is skeptical and hardened that there is always hope, especially when one is connected to God. This one man who has been quoted as saying, “I am not an optimist, but a great believer of hope”, has been used by God to demonstrate that hope (rooted in Him) is greater than mere optimism – in transforming the course and history of a whole nation!
Nelson Mandela had many connections to Methodism throughout his life; being a graduate of a Methodist boarding school, having a Methodist chaplain in prison and he was conferred the World Methodist Council peace award as a “symbol of freedom, justice and peace” in 2000. The South African Embassy has requested the methodist Church in Malaysia to help organize a Vigil/ Memorial Service in thanksgiving to God in memory of this great man on the evening of 13 December 2013. This will be held in the Trinity Methodist Church, PJ.
S Mapenzauswa and D Dolan of Reuters wrote poignantly of the 10 December 2013 Memorial celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life in Johannesburg, “World leaders from US President Barack Obama to Cuba’s Raul Castro joined thousands of South Africans to honour Nelson Mandela on Tuesday in a memorial that will celebrate his gift for uniting enemies across political and racial divides……Obama and Castro, whose nations have been foes for more than half a century, are among the designated speakers at the stadium where 23 years earlier Mandela, newly freed from apartheid jail, was hailed by supporters as the hope of a new South Africa.”
In man, created in the image of God, we see the tangible proof of the ability of a human being able to reflect some of his or her Creator’s attributes. The General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa, Rev Moss Ntlha aptly says: “Madiba is considered by many as the father of the nation. He modelled firm confrontation with evil and injustice, and magnanimity in his triumph over those who sought his destruction. His passing calls to mind the prophetic tradition of Micah that says: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).”
However, in this season of Christmas, let us remember that though “A great light has gone out of the world” [the tribute to Nelson Mandela by British PM David Cameron ] yet, THE LIGHT of lights, the Light of the World that the stars and all of creation point to – is with us as we celebrate His BIRTH as many have done over twenty centuries.
May this God Who offers such undeserved love to sinners give a sense of FRESH HOPE to all who dwell in this beloved land of ours, especially His Church in Malaysia, so that we “overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”. In Christ Who is the Light of the world, may we be apostles of hope who say “this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine”. Let us shine as lights of hope after that of Nelson Mandela - for this needy nation of ours is stricken with much darkness of racial and religious polarisation. Let us once again resolve with others as the Church in Malaysia, to be obedient to the injunction of our beloved Saviour, to “let your light so shine before men....and glorify your Father in heaven.”
My prayer for us all in Malaysia this Christmas and the New Year is “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”.