The Applied Mathematics Questions of The Lord – An Interview with Rev Timothy Au, Assistant Professor (Practical Studies), Chaplain, Pastoral Ministry Placement Coordinator
Interviewed and written by
If one could catch a glimpse of the Lord’s footsteps in mathematics, Rev Timothy Au would testify he has seen the figure of the Creator God in the choices and leaps he has made throughout his vocation path.
In the early 1980s, Timothy, Assistant Professor (Practical Studies) was a civil engineering student at the Hong Kong Baptist College which happened to be the last civil engineering class. One day, a church mentor who knew him well asked, “Do you really want to measure rocks and stones your whole life?” That prompted him, a ‘rational guy’ who loved logical thinking and interacting with people to decide resolutely relocating to Canada for computer science study, in hopes of using his professional qualifications to devote himself to missionary work in China one day. With God’s grace, he finished his university education and returned to Hong Kong in 1987. He worked as a system engineer until 1990 when he was called to study at CGST.
The Gravity of Faith
Timothy’s four years of overseas education was indeed abundant. Being the youngest in the family, his first training of independency started from coping with the basic necessities in life, to emotional struggles and the ups and downs in his journey of faith. His preparatory work for studying abroad went very smoothly, which Timothy deeply appreciated how amazing it was to follow the footsteps of the Lord. Little did he expect to encounter unanticipated events that happened upon his arrival in Canada which thrust him heavily back to earth: he failed to register for the subjects he liked. Worse still, the high rental charge for his temporary dwelling place, coupled with an unexpected visitor of his landlord, forced him to share a bed with a total stranger. Surprisingly, there was another miraculous turnaround after two weeks.
Timothy said, “I have been a Christian for ten years at that time. But the unexpected turn of events and the sudden ups and downs made me realised in a flash that it was very risky being a Christian. It was not that God was not real, but I was really afraid.”
After struggling for months, he came across this lyrics at a gathering: “Lord, I am willing to finish walking your path” (from the hymn “Send Me”) which rekindled Timothy’s determination to get up and walk again.
Twenty odd years later, he came to another valley. The circumstance was different this time, but the choice he had to make was the same.
Timothy graduated from CGST in 1993. Because of the then situation of his mother church, he felt responsible to take up the role of pastor in his church. After one year, he was the only full-time pastor in his church. “All I wanted was to become a missionary to China Mainland, but God called me, ‘Why don’t you lead the whole church into this mission work?’ Then I thought perhaps I should do it together with my church. So I bit the bullet and took up the position of lead pastor.”
In 2006, he almost gave up due to issues with his co-workers in church. “I thought, ‘Lord, you put me in this position. Now problems have surfaced. It was unfair of you not to give me a choice in the first place.’” He then took a month’s leave to Canada and repeatedly meditated: “I asked The Lord, ‘Do I still have a choice?’ and The Lord answered, ‘Now I am giving you a choice: Do you want to continue or quit?’ By that time, I had been the lead pastor for 13 years and it was the first time the Lord asked me.”
After a long and careful consideration, Timothy decided to continue. It was not because of any sudden miracles or gifts from The Lord. In fact, all circumstances, personnel and temperament remain the same: “But one thing was different: I chose to submit. This incident stirred up the feeling of ‘being forced’ which had long been buried deep in my heart, and that was the reason why I always said I had no choice. But it was all because I did not want to submit. God is really amazing: He knew I needed to go through this process of making choices. He also reminded me, ‘You always have a choice whether to submit or not.’ Do not shift the responsibility and blame other people or circumstances.”
The Dimension of Growth
The realization of ‘choices’ helped Timothy to turn a new leaf and understand what ‘growth’ was all about. “Growth is not just about having biblical knowledge or a religious life. It is about dealing with the deep questions,” said Timothy, who believed the first step of a growth process is to be aware of the false self before living out his true self.
But the more intelligent a person is, the easier it is for the false self to form. Timothy said, “Even though I wanted to be ‘naughty’, I would still pretend to be good. That is how the false self is formed.”
The first time he felt ‘reborn’ was during a 10-day CGST retreat camp led by Dr Hans Burki. “As a spiritual mentor, he gave me a lot of inspirations and guidance which not only helped me get in touch with many insidious problems, but more importantly to handle the profound influence that my family of origin had on me.”
From his many years of pastoral experience, Timothy saw growth and ministry as a desire to be true to oneself. “Difficulties do not come from the outside but from inside. External circumstances have an effect, but that should not be viewed as the biggest limitation. On pastoral ministry, there are too many things which are impossible on human terms. But does that mean we cannot do anything? Or that we do not need to do anything? Hans showed me an important piece of homework: learn to listen. There was no shortcut or good method to attain it but it would come with practice. Hans often reminded us, ‘Speak less and listen more to the heart.’ A person who can listen to the voice of his own heart will be better equipped to listen to others. If we can bring people to The Lord, that would be very good and very sufficient.”
In 2014, Timothy joined the CGST faculty team to teach subjects of Practical Studies, but he still remained in his church as a consultant pastor. “That was because I really want to shepherd the next generation of pastors, to pass the baton, but not throw the baton in church. Secondly, I can continue my passion for China in CGST. Thirdly, it is about missionary work. Missionary and pastoral ministry are two sides of a coin that cannot be separated. I hope in future, pastors can better integrate the two.”
In recent years, Timothy has started to promote “spiritual companion”. He has organised retreat camps and encouraged the practice of ‘being still’ and ‘mutual support’. These can be coordinated with discipleship courses together. “On the one hand, one can listen to himself and others. Discipleship is to learn to listen to God, and how to listen accurately and deeply.” Timothy has also written a booklet on family rituals so that pastoral ministry can be practised at home. “A church is like a person in family and society, and this will no doubt has an effect and influence on him. No one can escape from these three areas: family, workplace and society.”
The Distance of Torn Apart
“Torn apart” becomes a common term frequently used in today’s society. It is also a keyword used in many talks on church ministry. “To put it mildly, ‘torn apart’ means ‘differences’. Torn apart occurs because you and I are different! This is the reality and also a fact which the churches should not shy away from.” Some equate ‘unity’ with ‘similarity’, some even say ‘unity’ means ‘uniformity’. But Timothy denounced, “This is totally against the teaching of the Bible and its theological meaning. We have a theology of ‘unity in diversity’ but do not practise it. We can be ‘united’ because we believe in one God, submit to Him and unite in Him, but this does not mean we do not have diversity because we are in fact very different. If we try to make others the same as us, that is not unity but uniformity. The temptation to do this is huge! Even churches would want to do that.”
Nowadays in Hong Kong, Timothy believes what really needed is the “gospel of reconciliation” in the Christian faith. “Reconciliation is not assimilation! It is not to change ‘you’ to ‘me’, nor ‘me’ to ‘you’. But if it is not properly explained, the ‘gospel of reconciliation’ will become ‘gospel of harmony’”. Timothy said ‘consensus’ is not the same as ‘tolerance’, but the ‘mutual acceptance and co-existence in Christ’. “Another expression commonly heard in the church is ‘That is your view and I respect that.’ This means ‘Whatever you do is of no relevance to me.’ Wrong! ‘Torn apart’ is exactly due to ‘the drawing of lines’. In the context of a church congregation and a team of co-workers, genuine respect means ‘if you have problems, I will not stay away.’ That is the taking up of something collectively and paying the cost together, just like a family.” For church to nurture such a community, Timothy saw two dimensions to it. Foremost, each person has to genuinely face himself, learn to speak for himself and be responsible for his own words and deeds. At the same time, even though there are differences of opinions, one will still be willing to bear the responsibilities together.
In the three applied mathematics questions that The Lord gives to Timothy, he can not only make choices, pass the baton and share responsibilities, but also look straight into the Wonderful Counselor as the one who sets the questions.