It doesn’t get any better than this, on this side of heaven. Butter chicken curry, and gelato for dessert. It doesn’t get any better than this – the best preaching weather, an attentive audience, with opened Bibles. It doesn’t get any better than this, on this side of heaven.”

David Cook (paraphrase from a sermon in judges)

This quote hit me. With David having lived such a fulfilled life, I’m heavily inclined to believe him. The funny, as well as sad thing, is that before he mentioned this quote, it didn’t even cross my mind. There is really nothing better than to have time that is protected from the chains of our daily routines, to study God’s Word with others.

For me, 2022 continues to be a year of catching up on things that have been sorely missed. The past half a year has been spent ticking the boxes for a backlog of experiences that we were devoid of in Victoria for the past 2 years – where I’ve never attended this many camps/conferences so frequently ever in my life. As we have missed the ability to gather physically for the past 2 years, it always feels surreal in being able to exist within the same space to dive into the Word of God. Looking back at lockdowns in hindsight, emphasised the importance of Hebrews 10:

”Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” – Hebrews 10:23-25 ESV

What I found most profound about Engage was not necessarily the talks that were discussed – don’t get me wrong, they were immensely thought-provoking. Rather, it was the conversations with others. The prolonged lockdowns made me realise that it’s two drastically different things to know a person, and to know of a person. The latter can be thought of as akin to one-way communication, with the former being thought of as a dynamic, two-way exchange of conversation. For instance, when we read a book, a blog, or mindlessly scroll through social media, it’s one-way communication. When we actively listen and reply in response to another, is two-way. Actual conversation is the key to how one is able to move from knowing of a person, to knowing who they really are. Hence, it is such a privilege whenever we have the opportunity to pick the brains of another for ourselves and so have a peek at their philosophy for living.

There were many great conversations during Engage, with my favourite being this:

It was approaching dinner time on Sunday night, in which the ambience of twilight coloured the frigid and bleak sky. The weather consisted of the infamous Melbourne dampness, with mud puddles in almost every direction one could see at the mountainous convention site. Being at a higher altitude, it seemed that the clouds, at any moment, could spontaneously cry droplets of rain. Horrible weather by any standards, but the best preaching weather according to David Cook. As the weather was so miserable, it was helpful in that there was really nothing that could compete towards having single-minded attention for the Word of God. Upon walking down a flight of wooden stairs, I reached for the door that entered the palely lit convention foyer.

Only about 30 seconds later, David Cook walked through the doors and appeared directly just in front of me. What a chance encounter it was – where I quickly approached him to extend my greetings. I was just some random or nobody in the conference, where David could have really talked to anyone else in the slowly filling foyer. After about a minute of small talk, we proceeded to grab seats for dinner.

Let’s go!!!

The most accurate description of this moment would be like when I was a kid playing Pokemon on the GameBoy, where you somehow stumble on a rare Pokemon in the Safari zone like Chansey on the 1st go, and you somehow managed to capture it with your 1st safari ball. IYKYK.

David Cook doesn’t need much introduction. He’s been the principal of Sydney Missionary and Bible College (SMBC) for 26 years (more years than I’ve been alive). Since his retirement in 2011, he then set up the Expository Preaching Trust and has been training and mentoring pastors in their craft since. He’s written many books and preached all over the world. The phrase “preachers of preachers”, or even during Jesus’ time, “a Pharisee of Pharisees” wouldn’t be a description that is too far off for him.

Knowing this beforehand, I initially felt timid and intimidated talking to him, as the impression I had was that he was one of those big-brain sorts of speakers. And he was. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible, as well as years of life experience under his belt. In comparison, I was basically a nobody. However as I continued to converse with him, what surprised me the most was not actually his resume on paper, impressive though that is. What deeply impressed me, rather, was the Christ-like character that God has spent decades refining.

I noticed immediately upon sitting down that he was servant-hearted for those around him. As the steaming lasagna arrived at the table, David was the 1st person to grab the plates and start distributing the food for everyone, as well as pouring the water into all our cups. I felt incredibly embarrassed because in Asian culture, those that are younger should strive to serve those older than us.

Though being just some random small fry, I was shocked to find that he had a genuine, and even enthusiastic interest in my life. As we conversed, topics ranged from why Dentistry, why did he decide to go into ministry, his favourite theological books (being ‘Knowing God’ by J.I. Packer and John Calvin’s Institutes), favourite book in the bible (Romans, such a classic), to how great Malaysian food is. With his now-iconic phrase, David mentioned that the hawker centres, curries with roti from Mamak stores, and the choco top vanilla soft serve ice creams from the Malaysian McDonald’s “doesn’t get any better than this on this side of heaven”. I laughed continuously.

The other thing I noticed, was his practical diligence in trying to live the Christian faith not only for himself but his family. In one of his sermons, he mentioned how he strove to have Bible reading, devotion and prayer with his wife and children 5 days a week. Where despite one recalcitrant son who never wanted to do family devotion, they persevered. And now, his children who have families of their own, continue this same practise with their own children 5 days a week, where the same recalcitrant son thanked David for continuing the practise all these years later. With this in mind, I asked:

“How did you manage to start doing devotions with your children?”

David then remarked that it was something that he always did with his wife five days a week before having children, where it was simply a natural progression to extend it towards his children too when they were of age.

Wow. Just wow.

Upon leaving after dessert into the frigid darkness of the night towards my cabin to finish off my Strand 1 talk, I was absolutely stunned by the example that he set for me. Interestingly, the conversation reminded me of a passage in James 2, which discusses the sin of partiality:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” – James 2:1-13 ESV

These were incisive words for me. David had such an enthusiastic interest in a random person like me. In contrast, I was eager to chat with him because of my admiration for his insightful sermons. David’s discussion with me revealed to me how admiration for others, should not get in the way of ‘loving your neighbour as yourself’. As Jesus spoke to the Pharisees:

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35  And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36  “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37  And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38  This is the great and first commandment. 39  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:34-40 ESV

In order to love our neighbour, it should not depend on how much we admire them, and therefore who they are or what they have accomplished. Rich or poor, intelligent or slow in thought, knowledgeable or ignorant, respected or shunned by society. For “has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5)

Admiration of others, though it may certainly come from a right place, can progress to idolatry if taken too far. As Thomas Carlyle muses:

“A great man shows his greatness by the way he treats little men.”

Thomas Carlyle