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A Dream I Had to Give Up . . . Hong Kong

Written By Cecilia Leung

You know that oft-quoted verse, Jeremiah 29:11? I hate it. If you bring it up to me right now, I’m liable to break down in tears or leave the room, slamming the door behind me.

Here’s the context. I’ve long had an irrational fear of ending up living on the outskirts of a small town in America. It might seem silly, but this is something I’ve really struggled with, and thought I eventually made peace with. For the first few years of marriage, my husband and I, and eventually our son, lived very happily in that dreamy, suburban neighborhood I had feared so much.

But two years ago, we were given the chance to move to the Asian metropolis I had spent some of my formative years in, Hong Kong, and we leaped at the chance.

From the day we landed, it felt like this was where we were meant to be. My husband, my son, and I, all thrived in different ways on this side of the world. Without need for much discussion, we both agreed that this is where we wanted to raise our son. This is where we were going to live for the next 20 years, and maybe for the rest of our lives.

We dreamed about the future. We relished the little daily memories we were making—picking out greens at the wet market while our child admired the frogs for sale; ordering roast pigeon for dinner at the noisy outdoor restaurants; watching the old men play chess in the park, chattering happily in the local language on the playground . . .

Then, because of a series of complex reasons, we made the decision to move back to America.

While we were convinced that a move will be best for our family in the long term, in many ways, it was the last thing we wanted to do. We both cried as we made the decision. America is great and all, but it is just not what we imagined for our lives.

I look around the home we thought we would raise our son in, and realize that it is not to be. Looking at frogs in the market, eating at outdoor restaurants . . . these things will no longer be a part of our daily lives. This will not be my son’s childhood.

And that hurts.

Letting go of dreams really, really hurts.

As I was crying myself to sleep the night after we made our decision to move, it occurred to me that I had been reading Jeremiah on and off throughout the summer, and would be reading chapter 29 the next day.

That threw me into a fresh round of tears.

I knew that in chapter 29, Jeremiah writes a letter to the Israelites in exile in Babylon. He tells them they are to remain in Babylon for 70 years. In the past, every time I heard that “70 years” promise (Jeremiah 29:10), I had always thought to myself, “Hey, that’s not so bad. They know when they’ll get to return to Israel.”

But this time it struck me. 70 years. That’s long enough for a generation to die. The parents who took their children from their ancestral homes in Israel to the foreign soil of Babylon—they would grow old and die, never seeing the familiar trees and bushes and boundary stones of their home again.

Is that how long we would be away from the place we had wanted to call home? Of course, we could (hopefully) come back for visits. But it wouldn’t be the same.

Through Jeremiah, God told the Israelites to “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters” (Jeremiah 29:5-6).

Build houses. Settle down. Plant gardens. Marry off your children. This is your new home, Israelites. You’re here to stay. Dig in. Invest. Live life.

It felt like God was talking directly to me.

You know, I’ve always been interested in growing things. I have a peanut plant growing in a pot in my tiny kitchen at the moment. But gardens are a near-impossibility in my beloved metropolis. “Plant gardens,” God says. Move back to America.

If I were less emotionally distraught, I would have admitted earlier that planting a garden would be lovely. I could grow peanuts, carrots, leeks, sunflowers . . .

But I did not want to move back. Don’t You dare tell me to plant gardens!

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11).

But they are not my plans! In that moment, I did not want God’s stinking plans to “prosper” me. I did not want His hope and His future. I wanted my hope, my future—a future that involved raising my family here!

I cried myself to sleep.

I cried myself to sleep the next night as well, and the night after that.

But God is patient. He let me throw my little tantrums, and I didn’t get struck by lightning or anything.

Letting go of dreams hurts. But it’s something all of us have to deal with at some level or another. So many people throughout history have had to make harder decisions than we are making. At least I don’t know that we will be in America for the next 70 years. Who knows, maybe we’ll get to come back after 10 or 20 years or something. One could hope.

We’re making plans for the move now, obedient to where we think God is calling us to.

“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

These are most definitely not my plans. I would prefer things to go my own way. But I guess God knows best. He’s probably working things out right now, planning minute details that we won’t even notice until we look back with 20/20 hindsight years from now. He knows better than me what I need, what my husband needs, what my child needs.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

I’m trusting You on this one, God. I don’t like Your plans right now, but I trust You. You’ll work things out, one way or another. I’m sure in the long run, I’ll look back and be thankful for everything that’s happened. But it might take me a while to get to that point. Be patient with me.

You know what’s best, God. I trust You.

 

Who’s Really in Control?

Photo taken by Blake Wisz

Day 25 | Today’s passage: James 4:13-17 | Historical context of James

13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. 17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

A couple of years back, I was planning a big trip to North America that was centered on hitting some of the continent’s famed hiking trails. I’d bought all the equipment for it—a sturdy backpack, a state-of-the-art tent, and guide books for each hiking trail I was planning on tackling. In the months preceding the trip, I was consumed by the fantasy of experiencing the wild. During university lectures I would be on my laptop, either trawling Amazon for the latest camping gear or reading up on other hikers’ experiences on the trail.

However, about two months before I was set to fly off, a sporting accident disrupted my plans. I ruptured a ligament in my knee, effectively ending all hopes I had of tackling the rugged North American wilderness. All the obsessive fantasizing and planning I had done over the last six months were laid to waste. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. My time in North America was tainted with a bitterness of what could have been.

James leaves us with no illusions about the fragility of our human plans and life on this earth. This flies in the face of our natural instincts. Like the example in James, we often busy ourselves making plans for our lives so much that we can forget to do the “good [we] ought to do” (v. 17). Furthermore, we can be tempted to feel invincible, as if we are the masters of our own destiny. In contrast, James describes life as a mist—fleeting and delicate (v. 14).

This serves as a warning that we really don’t have as much control over our lives as we would like to think. We might make plans and arrange our lives around our ambitions and assumptions of success, but the truth is, none of us can offer any guarantees. Even the surest of plans are vulnerable to the fragility of life. More than that, James reminds us that it is the Lord who holds the ultimate control over our lives. It is His will over our lives that carries the most weight, overruling whatever plans we may conceive.

In fact, the pretence of control puffs us up. It gives us a false sense of self-sufficiency that James calls arrogance. It’s an arrogance that pays no attention to God’s sovereign will, instead living as one pleases.

Needless to say, according to James, all this flies in the face of how a Christian should be living. Real faith involves deference to God’s sovereign will. Firstly, this means acknowledging our dependence on God, and how it is His will that ultimately decides our future. Additionally, verse 17 also points out that it means having our own plans take the backseat. In its place, we are to let our lives be driven by what God wants us to do.

This doesn’t mean that we should avoid planning ahead. Rather, James calls us to take reference from God’s word. In retrospect, I gave little acknowledgement to God in the planning of my big trip. Rather than live in submission to His word, my response betrayed an attitude that placed my will before His. The experience showed me that as much as we make our plans, they’re fallible. As such, we should focus our efforts on keeping God at the center of our plans instead.

—Andrew Koay, Australia

Questions for reflection

1. How much do you involve God in your plans? Are they made with His will in mind?

2. What do we know of God’s calling for Christians in the Word?
Would you respond and say: Lord, I am willing?
If not, what could be holding you back from doing so?

Hand-lettering by Rachel Tu


Andrew’s guilty pleasure involves rocking out to hits of the 80’s such as A-ha’s seminal art piece, Take On Me. He can usually be found laughing among friends or shushing them in a cinema. Currently spending 4 years of his life studying political science and sociology, Andrew looks forward to graduating and working at McDonald’s. However, he knows that the true work is advancing the Gospel. He is partial to great Mexican food and rejoices in its scarcity in his part of the world, knowing that it’s a reminder not to get too attached to this life but to look forward to the new creation.

Read 30-day James Devotional

Having Unproductive Weekends? You’re Not Alone

If you glanced at my list of intended accomplishments for this weekend, you might think that I’m superwoman. According to my checklist, I am a Social Queen who balances fitness goals, academics, and extracurricular hobbies like a champ.

In reality, I often groggily tumble into the weekend with an ambitious list of things to check off, but am quickly distracted by more primal demands: food, shower, sleep. So, Friday night vanishes, but hark!—Saturday is here, promising to be the productive day I’ve been waiting for!

Amid a coffee-filled morning and near starts to tackling “the checklist,” something unforeseen occurs. Maybe the dishwasher makes a growling noise, or maybe my car won’t start. Saturday is then absorbed in crisis control and, before I know it, Sunday evening arrives. Yikes—time to start another week?

Does this sound at all familiar? Weekends, as well as life itself, seem to pass by at an alarming pace—sometimes made worse by sudden crises that drop in uninvited.

Perhaps it’s against this backdrop that Proverbs 19:21 states that, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” It’s comforting to be reminded that the apparent twists and turns in my life do not thwart the intentions of the Master Planner.

 

The Twist in My Life

Long story short, I was involved in a horrific car accident five years ago, which crushed whatever long-anticipated, nearly accomplished goals I had at my fingertips, including expecting to earn the clinical credentials I had been working toward for the past six years, completing my first intense, obstacles race I had trained for, and accepting a role as deacon in my church.

Instead, the remaining years in my 20’s were a blur. Time slipped past as I focused on regaining basic abilities, like walking and trying to remember people’s names.

In the first year of my recovery, I felt like my years on earth were being unfairly taken from me. But then, a friend told me that that he believed the accident allowed me to touch more lives than I probably could have otherwise, and the truth of his words really impacted me. If God was willing to work through the most unlikely of circumstances and make use of my “changed plans”, then it’d be an honor to let Him do so. True enough, I have been given opportunities to share my observations as a brain-injury survivor, for example, in several prestigious locations, like the National Institutes of Health. I have also been able to include in my presentations how my belief in God has given me security, regardless of the circumstances.

 

Tips for a Meaningful Weekend

When things go differently than planned, we are given a chance to appreciate the bigger picture. Cancelled plans over a weekend, for instance, provide the gifts of much-needed respite and re-prioritizing. I’m still keen on productivity, but the last five years have shaped my idea of how to best pursue it.

So from my recent experiences, I have some pointers for any fellow checklist-followers out there:

  • Be realistic. If you’re like me and you find satisfaction from crossing something off a list, make the goals challenging while still attainable. Take into account other commitments that will impact your availability, so that the list is achievable, not just idealistic.
  • Think ahead. Starting with the end goal, work backwards, creating a list of sub-tasks that you can accomplish in a hierarchical order. I have found that working backwards to form tasks helps me achieve goals in the most practical and time-effective manner.
  • Don’t dismiss the mundane. If things aren’t going as expected, don’t write-off the potential worth of the circumstance. Seemingly “boring” seasons, for instance, may provide you with the vital growth and restoration you will rely upon in upcoming occasions.
  • Demonstrate gratitude. Even during a busy day, reserve intermittent moments to appreciate your journey. Don’t allow your tasks to distract you from acknowledging and celebrating the joys currently in front of you.
  • Trust in God. “We know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). Even when something doesn’t go according to plan, we can take comfort that God has a purpose, and He knows what He’s doing.

A challenging season is much easier to accept when I recognize that it may be used by God to have an eternity-altering effect on another soul. You may not get to see the impact you have on this side of heaven, however, so don’t let disappointment slow you down (1 Corinthians 3:6). This means that when your car breaks down or you have what feels to be an unproductive weekend, don’t give much weight to any discouraged feelings.  Every day is a gift, possessing great potential, regardless of the thoughts or feelings it brings about.

James 4:13-15 makes the humbling but accurate comparison of our earthly journey to that of a mist, which is here today, gone tomorrow. All we can do is try to be faithful in whatever circumstances come our way, then leave the intended productivity and end results up to God. That’s His job.

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15).

So You Think You Have the Best Bucket List?

Written By Karen Kwek

A lifelong scribbler, Karen enjoys the company of friends, a great cup of tea and seeing the gospel transform hearts and lives. She worked as a book editor until she and her husband traded peace and quiet for parenthood. It seemed a good idea at the time.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Recently my sons’ school principal addressed his students with this line from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”, recognizing that with their best years lying ahead of them, life is full of wonder and possibility.

And not just for the young. In the 2007 film that coined the “bucket list” phrase, Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson played two terminally ill men setting out to fulfil a list of things they each want to see or do before dying.

Since then, helped by social media, the bucket list has become an enduring thing. The sharing of all kinds of personal experiences, from travel and adventure to the artistic and culinary, not to mention photographs enhanced by every filter known to Instagram, makes for no lack of bucket list ideas and recommendations.

Today there are even specialized bucket lists, so that each of your must-do categories can have its own Top 10—10 Places To See; 10 Bestsellers To Read; 10 Extreme Sports To Try . . . In fact, why stop at 10? Sample the best that this world offers, and you can then die happy!

As Christians, should our bucket lists look the same as everyone else’s? At first, we might ask why not. After all, this world in its present form is passing away, and compared to eternity, our earthly lifetimes will be gone in a flash. Since Jesus has saved us for eternal life with God, what harm can it do to enjoy everything that He’s given us in the here and now? Surely these awesome experiences are all reminders of a powerful and loving God.

On my own list have long been a few special places—the lands where Jesus lived, as well as Dorset’s Jurassic Coast and Petra the Nabatean city in rock. I’d also like to watch an illusionist perform live, navigate a river in a houseboat, and hunt for truffles in Italy with friends and a trained dog!

But as I look again at these things, I realize that although enjoying creation and our God-given life is a valid expression of our relationship with God, the world’s obsession with the bucket list is based on some assumptions that may not hold up on closer examination:

 

1. Those who are not working through a bucket list are missing out.

Now, I know it’s very likely that Galilee, Dorset, Petra and Italy will not last forever. Certainly the apostle Peter writes of the destruction by fire of the earth and heavens and everything in them (2 Peter 3:10-12) when Jesus returns. We are told, however, that “we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). The earth will not stay destroyed.

Although the Bible doesn’t go into many details about what the renewed world will be like, we have every reason to believe that it, too, will be a physical, embodied world with, well, impressive topography! Dare I hope that some of earth’s amazing places will be recreated, only even better?

If this is so, no one who is saved by Christ will be missing out on any of these life’s experiences at all. Even if the new earth is nothing like the old, there will surely be even better things to do or see there! To borrow an idea from the world of software development, who goes back to the beta-version once the live release is out?

 

2. Bucket list experiences can be enjoyed only during this lifetime.

The assumption here is that life is fleeting and best spent living to the fullest before we’re six feet under and it’s all too late. Indeed, life is short, but just as the world will not stay destroyed when Jesus returns, Christians will not stay dead! The apostle Paul describes our immortal resurrection bodies as spiritual, that is, not immaterial but instead animated by the Holy Spirit, perfectly suited to the new heaven and new earth that will last forever.

This means that any mountaintop on the new earth could still be fair game for those of us who would like to climb it with imperishable legs! My husband and children also like to imagine the kind of beyond-Michelin-stars foods there might be at the great wedding dinner mentioned in Revelation 19:9!

 

3. Bucket list experiences make us into better people.

As the torchbearers of a carpe diem spirit, bucket list champions usually come across as people who are keen to try new things, challenge stereotypes, confront their fears or step outside their comfort zones. We’d probably like to think that they’re people who know what they want and can muster the determination to pursue it. We’re tempted to buy into the assumption that these not-to-be-missed experiences will be somehow life-changing and character-transforming, helping us become the kind of people we long to be.

But as Christians, it’s worth asking: What kind of people should we long to be, and how do we suppose this change happens? By grace, through faith, Jesus has already enacted a crucial change in our status before God. We who were once dead in our sin are now alive in Christ, through no merit or effort of our own (Ephesians 2:8). Consequently, the apostles urge us to live “a life worthy of the calling [we] have received” (4:1), making every effort to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with God (2 Peter 3:11, 14). Peter reminds us that we already have in the gospel everything we need to live a godly life, because we know Jesus!

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-8)

Although bucket list experiences may provide us with some unique insights, it turns out that growing into the kind of people God is pleased to use won’t necessarily involve swimming with orcas or hiking to the Iguazú Falls. I’m not saying that God never chooses to test our mettle Jonah-style, but most of us will find that training in the virtues of godly living and Christian character comes from practicing God’s Word in our day-to-day relationships with our parents, siblings, spouses, children, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. It is in these contexts that qualities such as goodness, self-control, brotherly affection and love are really tested and strengthened.

 

So, is there a better bucket list?

But before you yell, “Killjoy!” and stop reading, does this mean we should delete our bucket lists and never do or see anything out of the ordinary? I don’t think so, and I am not about to prescribe a one-size-fits-all “Christian bucket list” for you.

Instead, I have been asking myself how my relationship with God redefines my bucket list and my ultimate goals in this life. What does it mean, in practical terms, to learn to “number our days” (Psalm 90:12), wisely “making the most of every opportunity” (Ephesians 5:16)? The New King James Version translates this as “redeeming the time”, and the apostle Paul goes on in later verses and Ephesians 6 to explain that this concerns understanding what God’s will is and acting rightly in relationships.

Besides His will that we work at personal godliness, God’s will for humanity is also revealed in His  holding back the end of time for us. As Christians we are reminded to live with the day of Jesus’ return in mind. This is the single event towards which all of human history is hurtling! And lest we forget just why God is not bringing it on sooner, Peter writes that God has a very different perspective of time compared to ours: He is not slow to keep His promise to return; rather, He is patient, wanting people to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Human historical time is not random; it is purposed for the unfolding of His salvation plan! God is not simply killing time but filling it with redemptive purpose, calling His people to Him, one sinner at a time. And so, in these times where sin is present, there is redemptive work to be done in the sense that people urgently need to know Jesus.

It seems to me, then, that since God’s will in human historical time is to see as many turn to Him as possible, I can re-evaluate my bucket list in at least these two ways:

 

Time

Is my view of time aligned with God’s? How long would it take for me to achieve every single item on my bucket list, and could that time be more wisely spent on relationships that bring others to Jesus or encourage them in their Christian journey? Writer David Andrew puts it this way in Christian publication The Briefing #273: “Christians should be arguing for seeing life as a set of relationships to be brought under the authority of the gospel of Jesus Christ—the prime relationship. Sadly, however, many Christians act no differently to anyone else in their management of time—they maximize the economic rather than the relational.”

 

Other limited resources, such as energy and money

How much of my energy and income would be spent achieving every single item on my bucket list? Realistically, some of the trips and activities that people seek are terribly expensive. Am I willing to invest some (if not most) of that energy and money (or even suffer a loss in income) for the sake of relationships that bring others to Jesus or encourage them in their Christian journey? These considerations have a direct bearing on the kind of job I might choose, how I spend my leisure time, or even whether I see my time raising my children as an opportunity to make disciples for Jesus. Would I be willing to maximize the relational rather than the economic?

After all this reflecting, I’ve pared down my list, and I won’t be upset if I never get to do everything on it in this life. Those things can wait. I’ve also come to realize that on a few occasions when I tried to seek God’s Kingdom first, He graciously gave me experiences which might even be on other people’s bucket lists! (It’s true—one modest example is how my husband’s Bible college studies took us to another country for several years, somewhere we’d otherwise never have experienced as residents. Ask me more another time!) I don’t say this to boast, merely to challenge myself. I’m certainly not there yet, but wouldn’t it be amazing if redeeming the time meant improving my bucket list so drastically that my life’s passions could be Jesus’? Then, if Jesus were to return tomorrow, I wouldn’t have to change a thing about my “one wild and precious life”!

What’s on your bucket list? How could you make it better?