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With classes on every day and a busy weekend coming up, the last thing on my mind was getting sick.
Germs have no consideration for the ambitions of man, however, and on the contrary they seem to take a malicious delight in thwarting them. I struggled through one day after another doctoring myself with lemons and trying to sleep more, hoping that my immune system would pick up the next day and have my back, praying that God would let me "just get through this week". To my horror, what seemed like a simple cold soon became a clear case of flu, and my plans for the week were clearly doomed. One class after another, I had to cancel all my engagements, and vegetated on the sofa feeling like my legs had become gummy worms, until I didn't even have the energy to care anymore. I slept whole days through on that long-suffering sofa, passively watching life go by for the rest of my family, slipping in and out of sleep without even realizing it, with a total lack of ambition or interest in life. Even my two guinea pigs eating hay in their house had a more exciting life than me right then.
After falling so low, recovering basically entailed more lying on the sofa (somehow you still feel like it's an improvement from lying in bed) except with enough energy to do so without being perpetually in a semi-sleeping state. I found myself thinking over how my life has been recently, fleeting memories of people interaction, conversations.
This year has definitely been the most challenging (I hate that I say this every year and I hate even more that each time it is the truth! but I suppose that also indicates a grim sort of progress of sorts) year of my life, as I finished studying and took on more work than I ever had before. Every day a different class to teach; picking up new skills, trying to keep up old ones and ongoing projects; trying to keep up my writing, but without any acceptances to stimulate me, only one rejection after another to sigh over. I'm not fishing for pity here. To be honest one of the things which made me feel worse was the fact that I already have it so much better than so many people I know, so many of my peers, who are struggling just to survive financially, let alone have the time to pursue a dream, doing work they may not even enjoy. When I felt overwhelmed, even the temptation to wallow luxuriously in self-pity was soured by the knowledge that I was behaving like a big wimp.
But that's not the point; that's just the background. These few months since I've started this new phase of life, I felt like I had enough on my plate trying to manage my new schedule. Everything else--family commitments, church, social life--became simply so many more straws on top of the camel's back. Mentally exhausted, I felt like I didn't have the energy to talk to people; I got impatient and frustrated easily in my relationships, selfish about my time and energy, grudging anything on top of what I felt was my duty to give. I didn't enjoy living like that. I was aware that I had lost the sense of peace and purpose which I used to have, the joy in simple things like eating dinner with my family or having a good conversation with a friend. I looked forward hungrily to me-time, because it seemed like the only relief from the pressure and whirlwind of things to do which I seemed to be living in all the time, and started to lack the patience and calmness of heart even for these small things. And yet, me-time was more of a temporary distraction than a solution; social media, the latest episode of a show, my favourite Agatha Christie, (Destination Unknown, if you don't already know) they were just escapes, that didn't really leave me feeling refreshed and ready for the challenges of life afterwards. Frustrated, wondering why I never seemed to have enough time, never seemed to be on top of anything, or excited about anything anymore, I kept thinking the answer was to be more efficient, more productive; to cut, cut, cut all the unnecessary things that wasted time and took up energy. I cut the wrong things, obviously. My definition of "unnecessary" and "waste" had been severely warped.
Lying on the sofa, with that unreal sense of weakness and vulnerability, even humility, which physical sickness so uniquely impresses on you, I soberly admitted that I had made a stupid mistake.
An old phrase echoed in my mind; Elisabeth Elliott on a "life of unmitigated selfishness." Selfishness--that had been my mistake. I had become increasingly self-centered, in an attempt to cope with stress. I had lost sight of the things which were truly important, in the hustle of getting urgent things done. I had been living for the boxes on each schedule's page, living from class to class, project to project, deadline to deadline, and treated everything else as distractions.
John 13: 1 is a beautiful reminder of how Jesus responded to this very human challenge.
We often forget that Jesus, of all people, had the best reasons to be anxious and preoccupied, harassed, stressed. Imagine the power He held to heal, and the overwhelming burden that power itself implies; all the people He knew so clearly were hurting, suffering, needing Him. The very thought is enough to induce a panic attack. Add to that His merciful, gentle nature; His love for His disciples, knowing so clearly how devastated they were going to be, how ignorant and unprepared they were; the emotional pain of knowing Judas was about to betray Him, knowing so clearly all the thoughts going on in their hearts, the hatred of those plotting against Him. Add to that His acute awareness of His approaching death, the horrible physical, spiritual, emotional suffering it entailed, getting closer and closer with every moment...the full weight of countless souls' sins and salvation. And the very human reluctance towards pain, towards death, leaving this imperfect yet so appealing world that we love so desperately; all the words you would want to say to those you love before you leave, all the thoughts and emotions...
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.
He loved us to the end.
Amidst all that, He never lost sight of His purposeful love for us, the love which drew Him to the cross. This was what remained steadfast in Christ, that heart of compassion, that gentleness which was in His touch on the leper, that made Him hear the blind beggar's cry above the noise of the crowd, to stop when He felt the sick woman touch His garment. The love with which He let the children climb into His lap, even as the disciples frowned and tried to make signals to Him to stop. The same love burned steady in the confusion, betrayal, pain and fear of Gethsemane; in the loneliness of the high priest's courtyard, the shame and suffering of the barracks, of the cross.
I want to be grounded by such a love. Amidst busyness, distractions, physical ills, frustrations, anxieties, fears. To have this love within me, for others. To have this love for Christ, even as He has for me. To find my peace, comfort, joy, priorities, within the context of such a love.
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"...and forgive me for what I did wrong...and help me with today...erm...and also I pray for ____, for _____ to get well, and for the missionaries I know serving in other countries...also help with me with today....wait, I prayed that already. Also that you will help me to get my devotions done every day. In Jesus' name, amen."
Let's be honest. There are days when praying feels like talking to yourself. When you go through your list dutifully, try hard to really feel gratitude overflow our hearts when it comes to thanksgiving, repeating the same prayer request for what seems like the hundredth time, and end feeling pretty much the same as you did when you started.
Those are the days we forget why we pray.
When the main reason why we drag ourselves through the motion is because this nagging sense of duty propels us to.
It's like exercise, that is for most of us who don't actually enjoy the process of exercising but rather do it for the sake of the feeling after--that sense of satisfaction because you did something that was good for you, you can feel good about yourself.
We do it because we know it's good for us....because we ought to...we know we could enjoy it more, but well, right now we're just focusing on getting it done in the first place. Me on jogging, pretty much.
In his book Desiring God John Piper argues that prayer is both the pursuit of God's glory and our joy--citing John 14:16 and 16:24: "Whatever You ask in My name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son;" and "Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full."
For us as human beings, communication is the means by which we develop relationships. And to communicate with God, we pray. Our joy therefore comes from developing our relationship with God, through prayer; understanding Him, trusting Him, and loving Him better. Seeing how He works in our lives and responds to our prayers. When we experience the union with God that we were meant for, we get a foretaste of the state we were meant to be living in, a glimpse of pre-fall Eden, a foreshadowing of heaven.
And this in itself is what glorifies God. Consider that this is the Creator Who made us for this purpose--to have fellowship with Him; Who made us so that we can "glorify Him and enjoy Him" (from our old friend the Westminster Shorter Catechism.) To glorify Him BY enjoying Him. Our joy in Him is His glory.
So the next time you sit down to pray, remember that you're not ticking a box, doing a duty. You are pursuing joy in God, and actively glorifying Him through it. And if like me, you think daily prayer time consists running briefly through a list of names and prayer requests, you're missing out on the main purpose of prayer, and its main benefit for us.
When we pray, we glorify God by experiencing joy in His presence. How much of that do you already have in your prayer time? It's a challenging and sobering question to ask, as it shows us just how much we've missed the mark, just how much we've misunderstood what prayer was meant for, how the "sweet hour of prayer" isn't the unattainable far-off illusion we can't relate to.
But it also shows us how much more it could be for us. How much we were meant to have.
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Deadlines and tension headaches aside, let's take a look at the type of stress that impacts relationships between people. When you're running late, because SOMEONE took too long to get ready. When your computer looks like it's going to crash and everyone's trying to help and it's just making you freak out even more. When you've had a long day and it's just absolutely unfair that you should be the one washing those dirty dishes in the sink. When you're lost and each person has a different idea of which direction to go, each person reading the same map differently in a way that would make Roland Barthes proud.
One of the most effective ways to confront stress is to purposefully consider how you handle stress--as an individual--as a family--as a couple etc--before it happens. And by before it happens--before you yelp "iT's hApPeNing aLL tHe TIme"--I mean before it actively flares up into a specific stressful situation.
Because it reveals a lot about your weaknesses. Your personality. And the impact that has on your relationships.
Consider how so many parent-child relationships struggle with communication because of how they react to stress--parents scold, criticise, blame; the child gets resentful, defensive, withdraws...
And not just when you're already dealing with it! When we're full of the emotions it's easier to blame our situation, to blame others; the last thing we have the mental or emotional energy to do at that point is to examine yourself. Though from experience some of the most revealing, humbling, and soberly poignant self-realizations I have had about myself took place at such times.
I made this discovery when I realized that certain people are the ones you instinctively turn to whenever something bad happens, or you made a mistake, because you know they are the ones who--instead of blaming you and adding to your stress levels--will work together with you to come up with a solution, will help you think things over, will reassure or comfort you, have a steadying effect. One of my sisters is like this. She is the one we all automatically turn to whenever we are in trouble, whenever we need help. She keeps a calm head, she doesn't waste time telling us how we went wrong but instead sets about doing something about the problem in a supportive way that makes me feel more humbled and sorry than if she had started scolding and criticizing me (which almost always produces a tense, defensive reaction.)
And naturally, the next thought you would have after this would be, "and how about me?" This forced me to realize that--to put it nicely--I don't do well under stress. I am not, unfortunately, the kind of person you would want to have around when you're stranded on a desert island or trying to recover deleted files. In fact I distinctly remember one incident where I promptly flung myself on the sofa to bawl in despair after realizing I'd deleted several crucial photos from an event I was covering for a friend. Meanwhile said sister quietly researched on how to recover the photos, uttering soothing noises meanwhile, and interrupted my dramatics halfway with the announcement that she'd found a way to recover them. I think that tells you all you need to know about our personalities.
I have to admit that whenever my parents or other people talk to me about my plans, or correct me, I drop by default into a defensive attitude where I take everything very personally, where I feel the need to vindicate myself even if that means covering up the parts where I didn't do so well.
Pride, isn't it?
Even though at that time I know that they mean to build me up. Even though I know it's not a big issue. Pride is stronger, making defensiveness my default reaction, when I should be humbly and cheerfully accepting the help others are trying to give. When I run into trouble, I get impatient, emotional, tense, irritable, and withdraw into myself as I try to fix things on my own.
And inversely, when others run into trouble, I get exasperated, criticize, blame them instead of--or even while--helping them.
Pride, isn't it?
I realize how fragile our relationships and emotional wellbeing is if we don't prepare ourselves to handle stress--as an individual and also in relation to others--before we're plunged right into it. If we don't purposefully examine how we manage stress, it jeopardizes our relationships, even though it also shows us (often ugly) sides of ourselves in the process--the pride, the selfishness. Because once stress hits us, in the middle of our panic, anxiety, wildly trying to think of a solution, trying to calm yourself or someone else or both--let's face it, we're not exactly in a prime state to remember humility, patience, and gentleness.
Knowing my weaknesses--reacting defensively to any form of criticism, feeling entitled to the help and sympathy of others, etc--and knowing the origin of those weaknesses--pride--helps me be more critical and careful in my reaction the next time I find stress straining a relationship. When I catch myself getting annoyed and offended because I got less than praise. When I realize I'm more intent on fixing the problem and making it clear that it wasn't my fault, than comforting and supporting someone I care about.
Jesus Himself, our best example, was the kind of Person that outcasts and social rejects were drawn to, the kind of Person you felt safe and secure to confess your mistakes and admit your needs to, without being blamed or judged or looked down on. He was the kind of Person Who did not roll His eyes or get bitter when Peter, scared and nervous, denied Him three times, after bragging that he never would. He was the kind of Person who submitted meekly to His parents even when they'd scolded Him more harshly than they should have. The kind of Person who stopped the crowd following Him because He heard the cry of the blind beggar on the fringes, felt the desperate touch of the sick woman among the hundreds who jostled Him. In the midst of what so often must have been stressful situations, Jesus never lost sight of the relationship, of the person, of the individual needs above the external pressure of the situation.
Who, when we rejected and rebelled against Him, when we proved our unworthiness to be loved and saved over and over again, responded by giving His life for us, by giving His all to redeem and reconcile, to restore our relationship.
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Matthew 21:12-1412 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’[a] but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’[b]”
14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
I remember my first introduction to this particular event in the Bible, helpfully illustrated in a children's Bible, one of those big glossy luxe editions where all the folds of the tunics, the feathers of the doves, the shininess of the flying coins, were painstakingly drawn for children like me to pour over for hours. It was with a sense of shock and secret admiration that I realized here was a lesser known, and more conventionally badass, side of Jesus, that challenged the largely passive idea I'd formed of Him. Jesus looked anything but passive flinging those tables over, releasing clouds of fluttering doves, in a reckless whirlwind of action that evoked childhood memories of jumping on sofas, rolling on the ground, screaming at the top of your lungs in wild abandon. Chaos in the midst of manmade order, control, polish, of institutionalized formality.
I have grown up all my life in a small church. We've always struggled with the same challenges--not enough manpower; struggling to maintain the basic logistical work of every Sunday's worship, let alone mission work and outreach work and additional activities. Looking for a pastor. For more Sunday School and Bible Study teachers. For people to help with setting up the worship room every Sunday, with bringing refreshments, with hosting prayer meetings. Dealing with the discouragement of having a scant handful of people turn up for the weekly prayer meetings, watching the numbers dwindle. And the list goes on; many of you can doubtless add to it...
It's easy to wallow in self-pity and discouragement. It's also easy to become overly focused on the tasks that need to be done--just as it would perhaps in a big church. To come up with the most efficient, productive strategy for growth, to race from one activity to another, to outline more SOPs for better organization...
...none of which are wrong, of course, but when they become the main thing we're doing? When we're more preoccupied with running this church (/business/company/startup...) more successfully, more efficiently, more impressively, more productively?
Jesus entered the Temple, a huge impressive tangible symbol of religion as an institution, with all its rites and man-made glamour, with the smooth efficient methods and structure of every successful organization. Read: church services without AV problems or crying babies or embarrassing ringtones; worship where the congregation comes on time, where the preacher is a great speaker with just the right amount of emotional appeal, flawless rhetoric, academic theological references, and anecdotes for that personal touch. Where smiling ushers that look like they were born and bred in aircon and fed on ice cream all their life come swooping effortlessly towards you to escort you to your seat (don't get me wrong, I've nothing against smiling ushers, but I speak from memories of waiting outside the church doors, feeling the sweat gathering on you like a moist second skin, and yourself visibly wilting in the heat even as you clutch a sticky hymnbook and try to look welcoming while melting) Where the venue is beautiful, impressive; modern enough for all the conveniences, yet classic enough to enhance the atmosphere for worship...
So ideal, isn't it? Wouldn't you feel impressed if you attended a church with a service like that? That's the kind of response we'd want our churches to produce on visitors!
My church doesn't even have our own premise; we rent classrooms, like many other small churches in land-scarce Singapore who don't have the funds to purchase and build a venue. Every Sunday we have to drag all our barang (baggage) up from a rickety cupboard and go about the process of converting a messy secondary school classroom with graffiti on chairs, socks and Shakespeare huddled together under desks, and wads of folded paper tucked under uneven table legs, into a place of worship. If I was a preacher I'd probably draw a parallel how, like modern day Abrahams, we are reminded in this way every week how temporary our current state is--aliens in a foreign land; journeying towards a final destination, relying on our faith and purpose rather than a settled place/concrete location for our identity. But I'll spare you the sermon seedling.
From this background, I can easily imagine how, staring up in awe at that beautiful building, you would feel a very man-centric sense of pride and identity--based not so much on God Himself but more on what we have done for Him and how our worship of Him, like culture and language and race and achievements, contributes to our overarching sense of identity and purpose. Not as a faith, in the proper sense of the word, but rather as an accessory. One of many slices in the pie graph of how we define ourselves. Part of community life.
And Jesus resisted this. He resisted the smooth, efficient clock-work structure and system, the successful organization, the institutionalized man-centric idea of God and worship. Deliberately channeling all that was most oppositional to everything the Temple had become--its specific list of what you had to do, to give, to be in the name of worshiping God, converting deeds into spiritual bonus points the way the money changers and dove sellers carried out their business--He became an agent of disruption, as aptly symbolized in how He overturned tables and set the doves free. Can you imagine a more visually effective image than that?
Instead, the blind and the lame entered the Temple, and Jesus healed them. The Temple became a place where real, personal needs were met in a life-changing way, for healing, for joy; "and the children shout[ed] in the Temple courts, Hosanna..."
And after that, the next morning, Jesus comes across the fig tree.
18 Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.
20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
21 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
I've always seen these two events in isolation, and it was the first time I realized they took place one after the other. Search the Scriptures pointed this out, identifying how Jesus's actions addressed the church and what it should be aspiring towards.
As a church, are we busy creating our own idea of what worship should be like? Our own definition of God, which fits nicely into, and in fact relies on the systems and structures we are preoccupied with maintaining? Which, in turn, enable us to present this polished, impressive, seemingly flawless idea of religion--where everyone is nice and polite and agrees with each other, where everything runs smoothly and everyone knows what to do, how to behave, what to say--one that seems like a very convincing way of glorifying God, at first glance, but really does a better job at reflecting well on us, the organizers.
I tell myself this every time something "goes wrong," every time something is less than ideal and we're reminded that we are messy, that things don't turn out as ideally as we might like. Every time I'm tempted to cringe or feel embarrassed or even discouraged.
What is my focus? Why am I feeling like this? Why am I more concerned about the front we're presenting, about how we "come across" to others, about how well or how smoothly or how impressively we manage to do something?
Instead, remember the second event, which took place the day after, and consider--
like the barren fig tree--
how much fruit--the real fruit which matters--are we producing as a church?
Or are we doing a good job at looking like we're thriving, flourishing--plenty of leaves, pretty flowers, nice straight trunks, the kind of tree that would have been picked for a stock image--
but fruitless, under all that.
Like the barren fig tree that disappointed Jesus, and earned His curse.
Christ's example reminds us to remember what we were meant for.
Remember: this is the "season for fruit."
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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