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"For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand."
When we read about Moses our go-to is usually the original, factual Exodus account. However, Stephen's account of Moses's story in Acts provides some new light on it, giving a more personal perspective into Moses the person.
According to this verse, Moses was already clear about God's purpose for his life. At that point in time, young as he was, he already recognized that his unique position as the adopted son of Pharoah's daughter not only preserved his life, but enabled him to have the skills, education, and power which his Hebrew peers would not have. He probably considered how he could use his position to negotiate with or influence Pharoah, or how one day he might rise to an even more powerful rank in the palace...
At any rate, it seemed clear to him that God's plan for him to rescue his people would inevitably rely on his privileged position in the palace. Why else would God place him there, right? Who else among the Hebrews had this much power, wealth, and ability, was as well-equipped?
However, the way I see it, Moses's rash murder of the Egyptian was an indication that he had become too complacent. Too self-assured. So sure that he was the chosen one to deliver his people, all the more so because it was so obviously a righteous cause, he took things into his own hands. In typical Lone Ranger/vigilante style. But the murder--despite all his good intentions--was still a murder. And to Moses' shock, he wasn't immediately hailed as the saviour he had seen himself to be.
Reality check: his fellow Hebrews were suspicious of him. To them, his Egyptian upbringing made him not fully "one of us." They rejected him and kept him at a distance, resentful of his privilege, wary of how he could straddle both cultures/races/and the power dynamics. "Who made you a prince and a judge over us?"
And at once, Moses went from prince to criminal. The next thing he knew, Pharoah was after his life. Now he was even worse off than other Hebrews; he wasn't a slave, but he was a fugitive and an outlaw. His life was worth even less than those of the Hebrew slaves labouring in the fields.
To Moses, this must have been devastating. How was he going to rescue his people and accomplish the mission he was so sure he had been born for, when he had officially sunk to the lowest strata of society? Now he was an outcast from Egyptians and Hebrews alike, a man caught between two cultures and belonging to--or wanted by--none.
At this point, it would be only human for him to experience some sort of depression and despair after going through such a drastic erasure of self-identity. Everything he was familiar with, everything he had assumed about himself, was gone. So it looked like he wasn't the chosen one to save God's people, after all.
Despite Moses' zeal and clarity of God's purpose for his life, he had to accept that God would work out His plan in His own way. God took him out of the palace, as simply and surely as He had put him there. God purposefully gave Moses those years in the desert, learning how to farm and care for livestock, the routine, daily duties of a husband, father, shepherd. Preparing him. Changing him. Equipping him, as surely as the prince's education he received in Egypt.
And most importantly, learning to place his life in God's hands.
By the time God spoke to him through the burning bush, he was a different man. When he finally returned to Egypt, he was no longer the naive, sophisticated prince, the foreigner the Hebrews were so suspicious of. He was a man who had experienced hardship and hard labour as they had, who had struggled to survive in the wilderness, who had experienced first-hand what it was like to be at the very bottom of the social system, to be the underdog, the oppressed. Moses was qualified to lead and represent the Hebrews--in a different but equally crucial way.
We may be so sure of God's plan for our lives. We may think it's so obvious, how God is going to use us. And even if we're not wrong--as in Moses' case--God may have major lessons for us to learn first. A path which isn't as straightforward and smooth as we expect or feel entitled to. Like Jeremiah, sometimes we may cry out in frustration and despair: "He has blocked my ways with hewn stone; He has made my paths crooked." (Lamentations 3:9)
What Moses learnt and experienced during that phase, even as he learnt to accept God's providence for his life, even as he had to humbly come to terms that yes, perhaps he wasn't God's chosen one after all--was what made him into the man and leader he eventually became. The Bible calls Moses the humblest man on the face of the earth, and perhaps those years in the desert were the reason why.
image by Ihor Malytsky from Unsplash
Having grown up, come to faith, and become a member in the same church, I've only known what it's been like to be in a small church, all my life. Even after so many years, we're nowhere nearer to outgrowing the "small" category. I like to watch the expressions of Christian friends when they tell me their church "isn't very big, couple of hundred only," and then ask me "how about yours?"
There are many challenges to being a small church. I would be the first to say that. For those of my readers who come from large churches, please don't misunderstand. This article is not a weird flex, an awkward attempt to feel better or appear superior or holier. Not by any means. I just want to challenge the unquestioned sense of pity that we (myself included) associate with small, struggling churches. To challenge the mentality that being small and struggling means that God hasn't blessed us. The temptations to feel envious of more "successful" churches, to wallow in self-pity, or fall into discouragement and despair stem from this mindset.
We all struggle. Struggling is not an indication that God has forsaken us, or cares less about us. When we focus too exclusively on the (inevitable) struggle we can end up blind to the gifts that He just as surely gives.
1. being in a small church = desperate lack of manpower = opportunities for us to realize--constantly!--that we need God's help and cannot rely on ourselves.
I'm aware that this is a problem that all churches face--on different levels. We always need more people to serve, we always fear that all the work is being thrown on the shoulders of a faithful few, the "core group." However, in a small church, this problem takes on whole new proportions. It's a looming problem constantly in your face, the first consideration of every decision. We're talking about every Sunday's worship service; managing to survive week by week, not having any backups, having to cancel or modify plans simply because there isn't enough manpower, or that one key person isn't available.
This is far from ideal by any human standards, of course. It leaves you in a state of constant instability and uncertainty, that can easily spiral into anxiety and discouragement. But instability and uncertainty are God's fertile grounds to grow faith, truly strong, tested faith. When you can't rely on your own planning, on people, on backup plans and strategies, you're forced to realize from the sheer bleakness of your resources that yes, you're not doing this with your own strength and ability. You're constantly aware that every Sunday, every prayer meeting, every event and every sermon, is enabled by God's sovereign will and power.
Too often we reduce the church to an institution, especially when we get lost in the multitude of admin/logistical needs and worries. And institutions are built on human effort and human ability--they look to human effort and ability for maintenance and progress. For any institution to improve, the humans running it try harder. Plan better. Purposefully expand. It's the recipe for success which we unthinkingly apply to so much of life.
But churches are so much more. They are the living fruit of God's Spirit working in God's people; each church in its unique context, with its unique abilities and needs. It is an organic, ongoing growth of the individuals within a community, and the relationships they have with God, both on their own and as a body. (yes, this is heavily influenced by the concepts of fellowship, or koinoinia, as developed in True Community by Jerry Bridges)
The kind of growth that cannot be defined in numbers, in graphs, or KPI.
A church that lost its pastor, or had a major split, or by all human standards seems to be struggling, may be spiritually thriving more than at any other "successful" point in their history.
This is not to say that we can only experience blessing/spiritual growth in the midst of trials, of course. But God delights to subvert the human ideals and standards for success, often to challenge them directly with how He works out His.
After all, He is the One Who reminded us that His strength is made perfect in our weakness.
2. pressing needs/urgent limitations = motivation to pray more
When you're face to face with your limitations and needs, you don't forget to pray. It's as simple as that. We are proud creatures; we don't like asking for help, or acknowledging that we need help, unless we absolutely have to. Often it completely slips our mind that we need help, in fact. We just get so used to managing, to getting by, that we let ourselves get entrenched in self-reliance. We take it for granted that we can manage, and that we can.
However, when the odds seem impossible, when you're faced with your own insufficiency, when you have nothing to find reassurance in--you don't forget to pray.
Prayer meetings became a much more personal, intense affair for me when I started seeing how urgent the needs of the church were. It truly became God's people meeting to pray together, to confess our neediness and unworthiness, to plead with Him for His help, to seek to grow in faith as we try to obey Him and serve Him amid many reminders of our inadequacy.
In our worst times, we come closest to Him. In our neediest situations, we glimpse His abundance and power, far more clearly than we could when we are contented and flushed with success or prosperity.
3. less excuses, and less barriers, to form friendships and relationships; to practice Biblical fellowship.
I've heard from so many friends on the challenge of being in a big church, where you don't even know where to start, where you feel lost, and where--in too many cases--you end up settling for coming jusssst in time for the sermon and sneaking away the moment it ends, in order to avoid the mass of people and inevitable initial awkwardness. (I can relate to this, almost every time I visit a--comparatively--large church. Guilty as charged.)
Sadly, this means we miss out on the huge blessing and privilege that Christian fellowship is meant to be. And even if we try, we often end up settling for smalltalk over coffee and snacks as "fellowship."
One blessing about being in a small church is that you have a much better chance of knowing everyone's names, and of seeing the same people each Sunday. There are more opportunities, so to speak, to build deeper relationships, simply due to the lesser number of people.
But just to be clear, nothing--not the most conducive environment in the world--can replace the genuine desire to reach out, and purposefully acting on that desire. If our hearts aren't in it, there will always be reasons (perhaps excuses would be a better word) to keep us from reaching out.
4. similarly--less excuses to get involved in serving. After my (already small) church went through a major split a few years back, we were even smaller than we were initially. Without the deacons who had been faithfully serving all those years, we suddenly faced manpower issues on a whole new scale. For the first time, the youths and young adults made the decision to step up and serve, despite our lack of experience. For many of us, who still felt that we were relatively young in the faith, we would otherwise continue assuming we weren't up to the responsibility, and settle comfortably for assisting in smaller, less "important" ways. Teaching Sunday School? Sharing at prayer meeting? Leading worship? Organizing camp? But I feel like I'm not up to such a big task! When are we, though? (in fact--feeling like we are may not actually be a good sign.) Again, it's a reminder that we don't serve because we're good at it, or because we're holy enough to qualify; we serve with the strength that God supplies. (1 Peter 4:11)
We get discouraged so easily. We think the answer lies in getting a church venue of our own--or a bigger, better one--in having more people--in having more funds--in having better pastors, teachers, leaders, structures, programs. We worry, sigh, feel sorry for ourselves, and lonely--when in reality He is among us.
I remember being struck by how the Christians under persecution seemed to be in touch with a strong, vibrant joy and sensitivity to Christ. Despite their very real struggles and trials, this joy and consciousness of God's presence only became clearer and more important. They were truly enabled to find out how much He loved them, and how precious He was--an overwhelming knowledge greater even than the fear and uncertainty of their circumstances.
How much more so us?
Whatever the size of your church is--there will always be anxieties. There will always be struggles. But that's not the main thing. How we respond to those struggles, how we learn to draw closer to God and see His presence in every situation... If I've learnt anything, it is that.
We worship a good God.
image from Unsplash
Those of us who serve in our churches--no matter what kind of ministry we're involved in--will know that challenges come thick and fast with serving.
Always, whether in teaching or arranging chairs, the temptation is to treat it as any other task--manual housework; finishing an assignment; organizing an event; giving a presentation. We take the same business-like approach to serving in church that we take to our offices, our classrooms, our kitchens. Get the task done. Plan for the next time. Do it faster, better.
The problem is it's not the same. Success, efficiency, productivity, self-worth, approval, rewards--these things, foundational to the mindset we take to any other forms of work, should not be our motivation and goal here, at least not to the same extent. We treat them as standards and methods through which we achieve success and make progress, through which we evaluate ourselves and our serving, the same way we assess our work in school or in the office.
This misguided application is often the reason behind us falling into discouragement and despair. Bitterness. Self-pity. Guilt. Resentment. Burn-out.
We need instead to consciously cultivate and focus on the true essentials for serving.
1. prayerfulness. This is so often repeated that it's become trite; but really, is it just because we can't draw a clear line between prayer and its benefits? If someone gave an argument that for every hour of prayer, we would experience n amount of blessing on our ministry, I think prayer would actually appear on our schedules as something we took seriously. Too often we rush through prayer, itching to get to "the real work," massively confusing our priorities. The very fact that the benefits of prayer are so 'vague' points out how we have lost sight of it as the basis of our spiritual life, how we are so enslaved to this results-oriented mindset. Like a husband who calculates what are the possible benefits of talking to his wife.
2. a Biblical attitude towards serving, and understanding God's role in enabling us. This is so much more important than we realize. It enables us to deal with burn-out, disillusionment, ungrateful or difficult people, feeling lonely, unappreciated, or taken for granted. Why do we serve, and how are we able to in the first place? (Fyi, Jerry Bridges discusses this concept of enablement and serving in his excellent book, True Community. But more on that another day.)
3. a right perspective and focus on people instead of goals, individuals instead of numbers, hearts instead of conformist external behaviour. It is so easy to look to these temptingly concrete things for assurance and certainty. Whether congregation size or skirt lengths. But God's ways are different from man's ways, and we need to let go of the standards we use to measure success, the need to constantly measure (and reassure ourselves of) success.
4. humility so you are able to receive and benefit from constructive criticism--and not be devastated when it's...not constructive. Also, to keep you from seeing this role or ministry as "yours," becoming possessive--seeing it as an extension of your self-image and worth, the way we tend to with our jobs and academics etc. I've realized this can be a real challenge, after working in the same ministry for many years. It is a very real and natural temptation to make it an extension of myself; seeing any praise or encouragement of it as a reflection of my skills/worth, any criticism as a personal attack that threatens my self-image.
5. heart of peace that stems from trust in God, and relying on Him. It helps us to cope with stress, anxiety, and to rest intentionally. Purposefully planning rest--and being able to truly rest, not just physically but mentally and emotionally--is something that many of us need to learn.
It helps us also not to blow things out of proportion, to micromanage/stress over not getting exactly the outcome we want.
6. actively growing in our relationship with God, and keeping a clear conscience before the Spirit. If we are clinging to idols, finding excuses for pet sins, neglecting our time with God, harbouring bitterness, or refusing to forgive someone, how can we expect to serve in ministry? How can we expect God to enable us?
Many of these are interrelated--cultivating one helps you in developing another--because they are all aspects of spiritual growth.
Which in turn shows us that one of God's means of helping us grow spiritually is through serving.
Dear friend, as you stifle a sigh and try not to be anxious, struggle with burn-out and discouragement--
--try to see beyond merely the task at hand. It is so easy to simply focus on what needs to be done, and forget that God could have chosen any way, in His infinite power, to accomplish this work or meet this need.
Instead, He chose you. He chose you, knowing full well there would be challenges, limitations, imperfections, mistakes.
He knows, and He chose, for a reason, and it is so much more than just getting this task done.
This task is nothing compared to His passion for your growth; it is only His tool.
image by All Bong from Unsplash
We all know that besides regular time spent in the Bible itself (quote Charles Spurgeon's "Visit many good books, but live in the Bible") it's important to read other helpful Christian books to grow spiritually. Whether this means the classics like Augustine's Confessions, theology like John Calvin's Institutes, respected giants like J.C. Ryle, Matthew Henry, Spurgeon, or more contemporary best-sellers like John Piper, Timothy Keller etc--there are plenty of choices.
Too many, in fact. It can get overwhelming just trying to pick one--let alone the real challenge of actually reading it. All too often we end up collating a pile of to-reads, only for them to stay on our shelf or bedside table like decorations.
How do we help ourselves persevere in this good desire to grow our minds, in cultivating the habit of reading?
As someone who's always been reading--story books as a kid, literature as a uni student, and now as a writer seeking inspiration and improvement--here are a few tips that have helped me in my own attempts at reading spiritual books; a similar, but significantly different type of reading.
1. Find a book you're excited about. I can't stress this enough. In uni, professors would title-drop nonchalantly every lecture, and anxious students would write down all the titles and try vainly to binge-read everything. This was not only actually impossible, but it really spoilt your whole experience of the book. Instead of enjoying/savouring/thinking through it, you're rushing madly through it, trying to speed-read at the speed of light while all the other titles on your Must Read List hover threateningly in the back of your mind. In the end, you've finished it, congratulations, but what was the point? We open the book, only with the goal of being able to close it. As Mark Twain cheekily remarked, "A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read."
True, that was just my experience in uni studying literature; but strangely enough there's much the same attitude when it comes to spiritual books. This time, instead of the motivation of seeming educated/knowledgeable, there's the additional pressure of a moral aspect, since it's the Right Thing to Do. On par with Eat Your Vegetables and other unpleasant but unarguable truths.
Too often, you have a truckload of Good Christian Book titles thrown at you--you MUST read this, you HAVE to read this. The problem is not that they aren't good. The problem is that there are simply too many. And if you take the same, dutiful approach--try to swallow as many as you can, as quickly as possible--you miss out on so much that they have to offer.
Having done this myself as a young Christian, I can personally attest that no matter how many Good Christian Book titles you cross off your list in this mindset--and no matter how fast/efficiently--it hardly benefits you. To this day I barely remember anything I read during that anaconda binge period, other than that it was exhausting and unenjoyable. Because, despite the brief flush of fulfilment after finishing each book, the list never ends. If you read only to have read, you quickly get discouraged when you realize how many more books there are out there. Always having more good books than you can read becomes--instead of an exciting blessing, as it should be--a curse.
Don't just settle for a book which everyone tells you you have to read. Pick one on a topic that you're genuinely interested and want to grow in.
Pick one that is accessible for you to read--if the language is too old-fashioned, there are too many new words, the writing style is hard to understand--don't force yourself. Those things come with time. As you grow as a reader, expand your vocabulary and comfort zone, you'll find yourself able to increasingly appreciate and understand a more diverse range of books and writing styles.
But for now, as someone trying to start the habit of reading spiritual books, there's no need to kill yourself.
2. Find regular times in your schedule to read. Whether this means once a week on Sunday, everyday before bed, or simply keeping the book in your bag for whenever you're on public transport, consciously find times in your normal schedule where you can read.
Don't leave the book on your shelf "for when I have time." Trust me, time will not come to you. Or when it does, picking up that book is not going to be what's foremost in your mind. Let's be honest--it can hardly compete with the next episode of your favourite show, that cute cat video, or swiping through your friends' Instagram stories.
See what works for you. Personally, reading on public transport has been great for me; I find I focus better, since I'm a "captive audience." My mind doesn't get sidetracked by things which need to be done, because hey, I'm (passively) doing something necessary right now, after all. It's a good way to "redeem the time" as well; since I would probably be on my phone or falling asleep otherwise.
3. Set realistic goals, especially in the beginning. Quality over quantity, sustainability over efficiency. This is not a Guinness World Record competition. Remember that your ultimate goal is to develop a habit of reading.
Don't have unrealistic expectations, whether on how soon you're going to finish this book, or how much you read each time. For some, maybe this means reading one chapter each time. Some may start with just several paragraphs. It may not be the best idea to push yourself as far as you can go each time, either (unless you're genuinely excited about reading more, in which case, praise the Lord!)
4. Mark quotes which spoke to you, or which were crucial in helping you understand the main thrust of the book. It's too time-consuming to make notes on every book you read, but simply marking key lines or ideas can make a huge difference--both right now as you're in the process of processing information, and in the future when you look back trying to remember.
My mom has a habit of writing in the margins, underlining sentences, and summarizing certain paragraphs. I like to stick post-its under important lines, with my scribbled comments on them. For especially significant quotes that I really liked, I might copy them into a "Quote Book" I keep.
Often--usually years later--you realize that certain key concepts or thoughts, contained in those quotes, were your main takeaways from that particular book.
5. Share what you learnt--humbly, with the intent to encourage. When we've fulfilled our goal of "having read", it's all too easy to let pride take over. We (naturally) feel a sense of accomplishment at having succeeded--having "finished" the book. And usually, if we understood it at all, we can't wait to tell others about it! This is a good thing, yes. But it slips very easily into another opportunity to modestly flaunt (what a paradox) our discipline, our knowledge, and most of all our superior spirituality.
We need to ask ourselves, what is the real motivation behind my sharing? Am I wanting everyone to know I accomplished this, seeking for admiration and approval? Am I desiring to appear superior for my discipline, piousness, or learnedness?
Instead, do I want to encourage others to start their own attempts at reading spiritual books? Do I want to encourage them with what I have learnt from this book, or from my own experience of persevering and benefitting from the habit of reading spiritual books?
Granted, this is a fine line. One which only we ourselves will be able to discern, and not all the time at that. It will be hard, and probably unwise, for others to try to discern this for us; which is why we need to watch our own hearts.
Developing the habit of reading is a long-term process (as the term habit should imply.) For people of our (very visual and multi-media) generation, it's retraining our appetites and mental stamina. It's going to take time. It's going to take consistent, patient, intentional engagement.
Like slow-release whole grains vs quick-release processed sugars--we're used to having things summarized, processed, distilled for us so that we can understand it as quickly and effortlessly as possible. Reading, however, requires an active process on the reader's part. We're developing a taste for something which requires us to purposefully involve our thoughts and imagination before we can understand, engage, and benefit. A perfect application, in this case, of Romans 12:2--Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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