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Recently I've been reading The Trellis and the Vine, an old classic by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. It may be old, but for me, reading it for the first time, it was a breath of fresh air in the clarity with which it expressed many of the experiences and observations I had from my personal experience of serving in a church for many years.
Many of us start our Christian life with a Biblical, but admittedly vague, desire to "serve in church". Despite the good desires and motivations we have, we tend to oversimplify it into the concrete actions of helping to move chairs, turning up at events, tithing, and volunteering. But to take these actions as the sum-all of our duties, as an end in itself, is inadequate. All too often it fizzles away into burn-out, discouragement, or a dangerous complacency that hides a deep lack of spiritual growth in our part, which the hum of activity and the feel-good satisfaction of being useful lulls us into not recognizing.
I've had my own fair share of all these, and yet I never really could articulate why, or what was wrong.
It was with great thankfulness that I read the exact same description of what I'd experienced, with an explanation! Feeling like a patient who had finally gotten diagnosed, I pulled out my posted notes (to this day I still can't bring myself to write on books; maybe those awful Hawpar Villa scenes warning about the fate of those who deface books had some subconscious imprint on my pysche) and knew that there would be gems to collect from this book.
The book begins with an introduction of its central analogy: the vine--the actual work of the Gospel growing and changing people; and the trellis--the structures and activities that support it--which are present in a church.
"We will be arguing that structures don't grow ministry any more than trellises grow vines, and that most churches need to make a conscious shift--away from erecting and maintaining structures, and towards growing people who are disciple-making disciples of Christ."
As such, a church's primary focus is always its people. Its ministries should be built around them--to meet their needs and utilize their strengths.
This thought, simple and obvious though it may be, should immediately make us re-examine our motivations and reasons for running each of the programs in our church. Are we having them simply because it feels right, because we have a hazy idea that the more "happening" and lively our church bulletin is, the more fruitful and impressive it seems?
"The growth of the gospel happens in the lives of people, not in the structures of my church."
This sentence stated it very clearly. For me, it was a huge encouragement, because we tend to measure growth and success by concrete, external improvement in our structures--more programs, more people turning up, a big congregation, a church building etc. Coming from a small church that has struggled with ups and downs, fluctuating congregation size, the only constant being the same persistent problems of manpower shortage, it's easy to compare ourselves to where we were five years ago and feel as if we haven't made any "real" progress.
Yet that's not true. There is quiet proof all around me of the lives that have been changed, the individuals that have grown spiritually, the people whose hearts have been transformed. Even in myself, having been nurtured and shepherded in this church all these years. And that is the important part, the real progress, the vine work.
As such, our attitude to people should be "not as cogs in our wheels, resources for our projects, but as individuals each at their own stage of spiritual growth." The church's role, then, is to be the trellis supporting their spiritual growth, training them to become stronger, more fruitful, to branch out.
What does training mean? In contrast to the Bible-college-seminary academic connotations we have of that word, training is something that every Christian needs. Not just the pastor. Not just the elders and deacons and Bible study group teachers and youth leaders. Every Christian needs training; to produce a "quality of character and behaviour based on the sound doctrine of the Scriptures." This is a brief explanation of what Jesus meant when He called us the 'salt of the world,' the 'light.' Salt and light, by their very essence, by their very presence. Who we are, and how that influences how we live our everyday.
Not just the few hours we spend in church on Sunday; in contrast, those few hours are supposed to help guide and teach us how to live our lives the rest of the week.
This kind of training, though it certainly requires focused study of the Word, is also "inescapably relational." We can take all the Bible study courses and programs, but never apply the head knowledge to our lives, if we don't have it modelled for us, if we don't see and struggle through the messy process of applying it.
Just these two foundational concepts already put into motion a whole train of thought on my part. Reexamining how I see my own service in church. My goals for my spiritual life. My purpose for being in church, "participating." The mindset with which I approach ministry, especially to others. When I'm tempted to complain, get discouraged, or get frustrated with others.
What really should be happening in me, and to those around me? And how am I contributing consciously to that growth?
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"The church might need to relearn what it means to BE church rather than simply to DO church."
This quote from the "Pandemic Reflections" editorial by Shiao Choong embodied the mixed feelings I've been having recently in response to the changes that the pandemic has made to our lives. We haven't been able to meet for church, for months now. Online Zoom meetings are the norm, we fumble to mute/unmute ourselves and discuss what's the proper etiquette--to turn on video camera, or not? All of a sudden routines that stood fast for years disappeared and a sense of disorientation took place. Sundays had always been frantically busy for me, with all the things that needed to be done. Suddenly all that was replaced with this unfamiliar lull.
What does it mean to be a Christian, to be part of a church, once we take away all the activities we associate (and often, equate) with it?
This reminds me of Luke 10: 38-42, where Jesus rebukes Martha for her blindness in pursuing the wrong priorities. Like Martha, we are so often "distracted with much serving," so much so that we even neglect Him, the reason for all our activity in the first place.
It is tempting to rely on activity as a concrete way of assuring ourselves that we've done our part, that we're growing spiritually.We have a sense of satisfaction when we see the results of our labour. We have the approval of others who watch us. We feel like we've achieved something. Progress packaged in a nice concrete way; the more activities, the better.
In contrast, Christ reminds us that "one thing is needed."
Do we as a church, as an individual Christian, only know how to be a Christian in terms of what to do and what to attend? It's much easier to busy ourselves with the concrete actions--nice, tidy little jobs that can be finished and put aside like housework or assignments--instead of dealing with the messier, abstract, and often more uncomfortable nature of spiritual growth/health. Dealing with that habitual sin or trial you're struggling with. Acknowledging and repenting of sins which distance you from God or bad habits which prevent you from growing. Going to God each day for forgiveness and strength. Seeking to live out faith and humility, and love. These are the things that we can neglect without anyone realizing even when we attend church faithfully and serve in multiple ministries, but these are the things which are of utmost importance in Christ's eyes.
If we neglect this, not only are we neglecting the "one thing needed," we will also eventually burn out in our serving.
It's only natural to feel disoriented with all the changes from this pandemic. But I will take this period as a chance to examine myself for any wrong attitudes towards serving, to remind myself that being a Christian is foremost my individual everyday walk with God, and to seek Christ's presence as the most important thing, as Mary did, and find my refreshing there.
In the absence of activity, are we lost? Even when we can't do, can we still be?
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With the COVID19 virus trending everywhere as the greatest concern, especially here in Singapore--where we currently have the highest number of cases outside of China--more and more Christians have taken to fasting and praying.
Fasting is not something that we in the 21st century do often. In fact, it's surrounded by awkwardness, often eyed with suspicion. We mumble about legalism, wonder if trends like intermittent fasting have taken away its significance, and feel embarrassed talking about it in a society which celebrates food and the enjoyment of food (what to eat for lunch is the highlight of many Singaporeans's working day!) at the same time as having a heightened awareness of eating disorders. In light of all these, a simple question is at the root--is fasting still valid and useful today?
While preparing to do so as a church, my pastor gave a helpful sermon on fasting which I felt was applicable in helping us develop the right attitudes towards not just fasting, but other spiritual disciplines as well.
First of all, as many New Testament Bible references to fasting indicate--Jesus Himself fasted in Matthew 4--fasting is still valid for us today. Having said that, how do we avoid the legalistic attitude towards it which the Pharisees and scribes had, and which Christ so clearly condemned?
In Matthew 6: 16-18, Christ gives detailed instructions on what fasting should be like, and what it shouldn't. Instead of focusing on the external specifications--what we fast from, how long we fast, etc--He brought the focus to our hearts. Where it should be.
(There is definitely a lot more that can and should be discussed on the topic of fasting, eg. guidelines, types of fasts, etc but I would like to focus on just this aspect of the topic, for this post.)
Firstly, what is the purpose of fasting?
To help us pray better. Not because it can change God's mind, akin to a hunger strike, but by helping us to:
1. get rid of a casual attitude towards prayer. All too often we take prayer for granted, pushing it to the corners of our routines and schedules, since we can do it "anytime anywhere." Like coming for prayer meeting--a specific event/time slot carved out for prayer--fasting helps remind us of how important prayer is, and not to become complacent about it.
2. strengthening our fervency and making our prayers more focused. Similar to the first point, it helps us to take our prayers more seriously, because it costs us more. Though we can pray just as sincerely lying on the sofa after a full meal on a Friday night with no plans, humanly speaking it certainly helps us to take prayer more seriously when we've actually skipped a meal because of it.
3. teaches us to be more submissive and have spiritual wisdom in responding to God's answers for our prayers, EVEN IF they are not what we want. This was a new thought which I appreciated, because it reinforces how fasting is so much more than the "hunger strike" idea we tend to associate it with. Its ultimate purpose is even greater than the request at hand; we also grow spiritually through the process of seeking God's will, praying fervently, and learning to listen in faith. Even if the answer is not what we wanted.
4. to help us make time to pray/pray more/pray for things that we don't usually have time to pray for. This is the perfect comeback to whenever we fall back on the old excuse that we don't have time for that in our regular prayer routine (*raises hand*) I find myself often feeling overwhelmed at the number of things to pray for on my prayer list. What more when there's a special case which requires more time, how can we possibly squeeze everything in? Well, this is what Jesus did. Surrounded by people who needed Him, all clamouring for His help, He regularly sought out time to pray. Even removing Himself to fast in the wilderness.
As a spiritual discipline--and as with any other spiritual discipline, eg. prayer, studying the Word etc-- fasting should not be treated as a painful duty that makes us feel sorry for ourselves. Exercising spiritual disciplines should be a joyful thing, just like how Jesus commands His disciples to anoint their heads and be cheerful when they fast in Matthew 6.
This sounds simple, but in principle is quite ground-breaking to me when I realize how much it applies to the attitude I have towards other spiritual disciplines. Do I read spiritual books out of a sense of duty, so I can feel good/not feel guilty? Do I feel sorry for myself when I sacrifice time/sleep to serve in church, or taking time from my schedule to pray? Perhaps I'm fostering the wrong attitude towards these spiritual disciplines, which keeps me not only from truly benefiting from them, but also prevents me from experiencing joy in them. Perhaps, when we wonder how those "super spiritual" Christians seem to actually enjoy these activities, and feel almost guilty that we *don't*--this is what we've neglected to see.
Likewise, the focus in Matthew 6 is not about whether others see you or not. Jesus' emphasis is rather on the words "in order that" (others might see you.) If we are doing this because we want to fit in, or please others--then we are already failing to do it for the right reason.
Simply put: fasting should strip us of our pride, remind us of our weaknesses and limitations. It should help us to humble ourselves to seek God more sincerely, to pray more fervently, and to accept His will with peace and trust after having wrestled in prayer.
Ironically, the exact opposite would be if it caused us to become proud of our discipline/endurance/holiness in doing it, the way the scribes and Pharisees did. Which unfortunately is what so easily happens if we do it with the wrong motivations or understandings.
I had my first attempt at fasting last week and it was...rather comical. I blame it on foolish decisions and a lack of experience/proper preparation.
Pragmatically speaking, I figured lunch was the best meal to skip. But because I had a class to teach right after that, and I made the mistake of thinking, "oh, I'm fasting for lunch today, so I'll have more than enough time for prayer and other things." Having fallen into the trap of thinking I could combine fasting with skipping-lunch-to-be-more-productive, I definitely wasn't in the right frame of mind for prayer. Sure enough, I found myself running late--even though I had skipped lunch!--let alone with enough time to pray. I hustled off to work feeling bad for my foolish decisions.
On my way back, tired out and feebly resolving to make some time to pray that evening (to make up for my fasting failure haha) I ended up falling asleep on the bus and overshot when I should have gotten off by two stops. It was drizzling too. I hurried off the bus in that semi-panicky sleepy daze and realized with a sinking heart that it would be a long walk back. The traffic was so slow on the opposite side that it probably wasn't worth it catching the bus back.
Struggling with my umbrella, I was about to give way to the usual woe-is-me-today-is-a-Terrible-No-good-Day response, when it suddenly hit me. Now. Now was the perfect time to pray. Despite all my good intentions, I had messed up my intended fasting/prayer slot, but God had granted me this perfect little pocket of time.
Trudging up that path with the scent of rain washed earth, wet trees plashing tears softly onto my umbrella, alone except for an occasional food delivery rider, everything just fell into place. My sleepy daze sorted itself out into a calm, focused, peaceful frame of mind, where I could remember most of the prayer points I had jotted down. For just ten minutes I experienced a little haven of a prayer corner under my umbrella; and God's gentleness in the face of our comical human failures. Truly, it's so much more than the prayer item at hand, or how perfectly we execute it. God uses this to teach us, how to grow in understanding Him and trusting Him, how to experience joy in obedience and peacefulness in His presence.
So 2020 has officially begun...and everyone who was born before the 2000's is silently feeling terribly old. *raises hand*
There's a pretty daily planner with a marbled cover on my desk--I'd been wanting one from this brand for years; this year was the first time the price wasn't ridiculously high. That has helped anchor me to reality, to make 2020 sink in. Call me superficial, but there is a considerable amount of satisfaction you can get from nice stationery, especially if you're using said stationery everyday first thing in the mornings!
thoughts on 2019:
2019 was finally--finally--a less stressful year for me. I was starting to get the hang of my different jobs, picking myself up after the crushing and mildly traumatic sink-or-swim phase that came with starting every new job. Learning to not care so much about what people thought about me and just focus on faithfully doing my job well, humbly accepting that I was not good at it and had much to learn. Conscientiously working on the bad and unhealthy coping mechanisms I'd become aware of. Learning to find refreshing and encouragement in serving, and to have healthier perspectives and mindsets towards people and problems. To see God's bigger picture, even when it--usually--went against the grain of my comfort/convenience/ideal of what things should be like.
Having said that, there are still many things I'd like to grow away from, looking forward to 2020. Yes, I've gone through Donald Whitney's 10 Questions! (a little tradition I've started for transitioning to a new year) I also had some important experiences and realizations over the end of the year, which made me more thoughtful about relationships and interactions, and motivated to be more purposeful about them this year.
In 2020 I want to:
--be more active and intentional in cultivating meaningful friendships and spending quality time= having meaningful conversations.
I'm very good at small talk. Too good. I want to pursue conversations which matter, conversations which bring your friendship to a new level and hopefully encourage growth in each other as well. To talk about what matters. I've had a similar such resolution before I imagine, but it's been getting more specific over the years. How exactly do you pursue meaningful and strong friendships? I've been slowly discovering that, I believe. Coming a step close each year. Wishing I'd started thinking about this earlier, of course, but all in good time.
Related to this, also a resolution to--don't laugh--not talk too much. I'm just as scared of awkward pauses as anyone. So that means that I often jump to fill the gaps, leaping from one lead to another, and with quieter people who don't talk easily, I end up talking incessantly for the sake of keeping the conversation going.
Listen more. Learn to ask people what they think, listen, instead of jumping in to talk or feeling like I need to give advice/my take immediately. This is something I learnt from teaching Sunday School, but funnily enough I hadn't thought about applying it with adults, in my friendships.
--to grow in prayer. Now, this has been popping up with embarrassing regularity on all my new year's resolutions. Embarrassing because it shows how the only consistency in my prayer life so far has been inconsistency. Now and then I hit a good streak, and feel pleased, only to break down all the good habits over a holiday or when something new pops up to make me busy. It's discouraging, but it also keeps me from becoming complacent. It just shows me how unreliable discipline and self-control are, as tempting as it may seem to see them as the solution.
I thought carefully about this, how I could really make some change in this area, and felt that there were some things I had never given thought to, which would help me to make this change. But more on that another day!
--not to let pride/social expectations/insecurities consume you. There is always the temptation to develop insecurities or try to justify so-called failures or lacks (eg. salary, future, ambitions, social life, lovelife etc) When you compare yourself with others, there are always things you feel you're missing out on. And since this is a difficult blow for our pride to accept, we tend to respond by slavishly chasing after those things, or finding reasons to justify it to ourselves so we can feel better. "If I hadn't chosen to serve more in church, I could have gotten better grades/a better job/that opportunity, but ah, you see my priorities were in the right place." I'm not being snarky here, neither am I dissing the fact that sacrifices like that can genuinely happen in a good and godly way. But it's a very real temptation, to cling to "legitimate" excuses which give us a sense of comfort that we didn't miss out--actually just another subtle form of blame-shifting, onto circumstances, onto people, onto God.
I'm being honest here.
I found myself, when I was feeling sorry for myself and wishing my dreams had worked out the way I wanted them to, tempted to blame it on those auditions/opportunities which I passed up, because they fell on Sundays.
I could have opened up a very different--more exciting!--road, and be in a very different place now. But it wasn't my fault, it was *God's*.
To be honest, humble, and not to live life in slavery to creating certain image of success/happiness/fulfilment.
--to be gentle. I realize that, though people often think I'm a loving/gentle person because of petty external things like care-packs, being sensitive/helpful etc. But much of this is often just a child-like desire to be kind, to make people happy. Not actual Christ-like love, the true type which endures. When it comes to the real, gritty work of dying to self, of living out love in a gory everyday way, I am anything but gentle and loving. Hardheartedness, pride, selfishness, they're all there.
It reminds me of a quote from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (truly an amazing book if you ever have the patience and courage to embark on it) "A true act of love, on the other hand, requires hard work and patience, and for some, it is a whole way of life." A warning that love is not merely the pretty, pleasant externalities we tend to associate it with, which are easy to talk about and easy to perform, like buying someone a bouquet or saying "I love you." We should not measure how loving we are, or how great our love is, by how often or how well we can perform these things. Just as the monk in the novel realized that his professed love for mankind was an abstract, theoretical love that actually shied away from the tough, often unpleasant work of loving individuals: "I love mankind...but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular."
--*continue* learning to trust more. I thought it would get clearer, as it has been the past two years, but it's again reached a crossroads/ uncertainty. Having to learn to trust again, especially after expectations that things would start to sort themselves out and get clearer. Things which seemed to have been becoming clearer have led to (seeming) deadends, whether in relationships or career or just general life direction. It's been frustrating as I assumed that they would sort themselves out by now, to feel that I'm back at square one.
But it really goes to show that trust is something that we never stop needing to learn. We are so tempted to think that once we pass this current hurdle--once God gives us a job, or helps us reach that level of financial stability, or gives us certainty about our career paths, or the right person to marry, or when our children believe in Christ--we would have done with it. But it never stops. We are always anxiously trying to control our lives, to make sure they turn out well, to ensure we live comfortably and pleasantly. Being aware of this is in itself a learning point. At least, for me.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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