photo credit: meee for once
It's been a while since my last trip, and I realized this when I discovered I had jotted my reflections down on my old phone's notes--about a year since I'd moved on to my current phone!
I can't share any names or places, but I want to share some of those thoughts, because rereading them reminded me all over again to live more thoughtfully, to live more purposefully, to be more aware of how my life works out God's glory. To love better. To live less selfishly (and the phrase "unmitigated selfishness" still pops into my mind now, years later...)
The same underlying spiritual needs, despite all the differences.
When we visited the village, all the way in the mountains, everything seemed so utterly different, so foreign, even unrelatable. The dirt roads. The spluttering tractor which had to be cranked by hand. The fields of vegetables and the brilliant sun stabbing at your eyes even under cap brims and hoods. The small pastel-coloured church with its wooden pews and dusty, candy-coloured walls. The old accordion and piano that came wheezing to life, filling the place with clouds of breathlessly beautiful echoes, thrilling against the walls in golden shivers. When the young people in the choir sang for us I felt a spasm of that tingling, yearning sensation that beauty has on me, as if their white choir robes really were angel's raiment; and simultaneously, an uncomfortable awareness of how ridiculously urban and cold we must have seemed, videoing them with smart phones, jarring the spell of the music. Like Bach being videoed for Youtube. It seemed to tie in to my unconscious sense of the discrepancy between us, the unspoken binary of rural vs urban, and all the associations that thousands of years have handed down to us, the Romantic poets' pet peeve...
And then unexpectedly we were asked to share our testimonies with them, as a form of encouragement. As we clumsily went up the small stage, looking and feeling like sausages in our quilted jackets, thermal wear, and layers of sunblock--to my surprise, we faced a sea of smart phones, all busily recording us!
Naive, wasn't I, to think we were really that different...
And that just reinforced what I later heard about the struggles this particular village church had, which were startlingly parallel to our own testimonies that we had shared. Ironically so. So much for the binary. Those young people singing so angelically, were, like us, kids who had grown up in Christian families, thanks to the missionaries who had first brought the gospel. Like us, they had grown up "christianized", with Christianity as an unquestioned part of their culture, their family, their society. Just like how their abundant musical talent found an outlet in the acapella, choral singing, and music which Christianity had given rise to, making it an integral part of their culture. They went to church, they sang in the choir (and beautifully at that,) they were our counterparts of GCBs and GCGs (Good Christian Boys and Good Christian Girls, acronymns I recently learnt whose existence reflects something about mainstream Christianity's presence in Singapore culture) the only thing being--as with us--that christianized would be more accurate.
So many of us "second-gen" Christians came from a similar background, with its specific challenges and pitfalls. Don't get me wrong! Of course, there are so many advantages and privileges too, but we do need to be aware of the possible problems as well.
So many of us--even well-taught conservative Reformed Baptist kids who can define election and justification in their sleep, and every letter in TULIP--end up relating to Christianity as a lifestyle, broken down into a long list of directions on how to live your life. So many of us, even though we know clearly--thanks to conscientious Sunday School teachers and parents--that we're not saved, find the lines blurring as we live within a "born-again" lifestyle yet without the actual motivation or reason to, other than pleasing our parents or doing what we feel is right. So many of us end up getting disillusioned, feeling oppressed by legalism, and failing to see the true point of it all. And eventually when new passions and desires come crowding into our lives we let it all go, like a burden, feeling like we want to move on to find true fulfilment, true meaning.
The same spiritual challenges and needs, whether on top of the mountain surrounded by random cows and walnut trees, or a 20 storey apartment over a mall in Singapore, with a subway track outside your window and a traffic junction down below.
All God's servants in different countries, ministering in different churches, in different ways, to people who seem so different--yet, really, isn't it the same work? The same needs. The same struggles.
And the same love that started it all, that carries you through, that perseveres...
continued in part 2
image by Debby Hudson from Unsplash
Contrary to the concerns that a lot of good Christian friends had, my experience of studying lit in uni (though admittedly atypical) reinforced and affirmed my faith in many ways, one of which was equipping me to enjoy and appreciate the Bible far more. I'll try not to get sidetracked; I wrote this post twice over because I ended up arguing my point rather than moving on to the actual topic! Another day, another post. First things first.
The Old Testament and the New Testament were just really fun storybooks to me, growing up, with their respective boring parts. I skipped deftly through the Psalms and the Minor Prophets in the Old Testament, and just as skillfully passed over the expository books in the New Testament, preferring to immerse myself in the rollicking blockbuster books of Genesis, Joshua, Judges, 1st and 2nd Kings, Chronicles, Nehemiah; and in the New Testament, the Gospels, the miracles of Jesus, and the surreal, fantastic visual imagery of Revelations.
And that was it! Cool stories but all pretty disjointed (no wonder, considering I just picked out the parts I liked.) Like picking out the parts of a jigsaw puzzle that have pictures on it, and ignoring all the parts that are just blank sky/grass/background (=my childhood.)
It was only in my teens when I was talking stuff with my dad and asked him why we didn't have to offer sacrifices nowadays (thankfully; anyone has any idea how to get a live sheep in Singapore?) He explained to me about the old and new covenant, how Jesus was our last and ultimate Sacrifice, the last Passover Lamb, that for the first time I glimpsed more than a mere chronological connection between the Old and New Testament, glimpsed part of the significant overarching themes that made them so perfectly complementary.
That was just the beginning. Suddenly there was a whole vista of meaning and significance to the kind-of-gross animal sacrifices, the blood, (I mean, "fatty lobe attached to the liver??" That phrase being repeated so many times in Leviticus always had a weird fascination for me) the OT prophets talking about the Messiah, the Ten Commandments and Jesus's "neo" Ten Commandment preachings in Matthew.
The Old Testament, best summarized in the Garden of Eden and the Ten Commandments, represented the story of humanity's perfect creation, the sinless, ideal state we were meant to exist in, and the ideal relationship we were meant to have with God. The fall. The impossibility of us regaining our previous state, no matter how hard we tried, or how many brownie points we tried to accumulate to offset our demerit points. The significance of the Ten Commandments, since their very existence proves the intrinsic nature of our sin, and since their simplicity and impossibility are like a death knell to any hope of us being able to redeem ourselves.
But (to use another literary term) also a foreshadowing of the solution, the first introduction of the theme of redemption and substitution, of death as a means to life. Of sacrifice.
The first deaths in the Garden of Eden and the messy sacrificial ceremonies in Leviticus, the mystic substitution and "unfairness" of the Passover Lamb, the same theme running through the Old Testament like a blood-red thread.
And then the New Testament. All Jesus's teachings about the heart, about how holiness and sin aren't limited to external actions, on trust. His death on the cross, and how it overturned all the expectations and definitions of success/failure that both His enemies and His disciples had. The ultimate example of "My strength is made perfect in weakness." The depth and scale of God's plan for salvation, not only in a historical context, but in a thematic sense as well.
Wow. Talk about epics. You know that breathless, heart-wringing feeling you get from epic sagas like Lord of the Rings, the great themes which make classics so striking and gripping? The Bible had like the origins of so many of those great themes, simultaneously; and still held them all together with a breathtaking unity. A theme which still grips our hearts today.
I changed my perspective of the Old and New Testament as merely chronologically related, realizing how they work together to explore and develop the overarching significant theme/themes of God's grace and man's redemption. The miraculous paradox of how Jesus's death enabled both God's attributes of holiness and mercy at once. The equally miraculous paradox of how we can be both condemned sinners and perfect in God's eyes, the elect. The juxtaposition of the old and the new man, the conflict within the soul, the mystical work of the Holy Spirit in "turning hearts of stone to flesh--" what a metaphor, by the way.
How to read the Old and New Testaments in a complementary approach:
1. Cross reference. I know--I used to hate being directed somewhere else, too lazy to flip through all those pages just for one verse! With technology, it might have gotten easier--or use both; leave one open where you're studying and use another Bible for your cross references, so you can see them side by side.
Take that extra bit of effort. You might find yourself seeing that passage in a whole different light, seeing a new perspective, seeing another of those thematic thread that run through both Testaments.
2. Read with an awareness of the overarching themes. As discussed above--but not exhaustively--having this deductive approach rather than a linear one when it comes to reading the Bible enables you to see the big picture. For example, study with a focus on how both Testaments reveal God's person, how they develop different attributes, or the same one. What hasn't changed, what has?
3. When studying the Bible--especially if it's a complete Bible study plan--don't, whatever you do, do it chronologically. From personal experience, I find this a sure way to kill your enjoyment and motivation. Just imagine facing the long plod ahead through Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Or resigning yourself to a string of nondescript Minor Prophets. Or one epistle after another. It's just setting yourself up for task-oriented, get-it-off-the-list, I-feel-like-dying frustration. What's more, there's a high chance that you end up more and more myopic, seeing each incident in isolation, failing to grasp the context and greater picture. I appreciate how Search the Scriptures jumbles the Old and New Testament books, encouraging you to dabble equally in both, and how I have the freedom to pick what book--Old or New--appeals to me at the time, while still pursuing a systematic whole-Bible study program.
4. When you hit something that makes you feel uncomfortable, or weirded out--"Ehh. Er why did God put this in, what's the point of this?" don't pass it over. Chances are these are some significant spiritual growth opportunities, as they were in my own experience; the sacrifices, the whole concept of the Holy Spirit, King David's less-than-perfect track record that jarred with his title as "the man after God's own heart."
5. And lastly, go. Do it. Don't be intimidated by the theology, or parts you think you can't understand, or simply the mental effort it requires to really think through and study the Word. Don't wait till you're retired, have more time, have enrolled in a theology course, going to be a full-time church worker or church leader, have a nice quiet rainy morning with a cup of your favourite tea and no background noises or commitments on your schedule to hurry you....
...ooh now we're getting a bit personal!
image by Max Hofstetter from Unsplash
"Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who make My people stray...[who] say 'Is not the Lord among us? No harm can come upon us.'
Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed like a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins...."
What ought to have been a beautiful declaration of faith and trust, of intimacy and closeness with God, was somehow so twisted that it became a condemnation. It's sobering, but an apt reminder.
Do we have false confidence in God's blessing when we are living unrepentantly in sin?
Do we turn a blind eye to the attribute of God's holiness and justice, and His command on us to live likewise as His people, and instead have an imbalanced emphasis on His mercy and His forgiveness?
Are we finding excuses not to address the sin in our lives, finding ways to mislead or distract our conscience?
Are we wanting to be Christian with all the benefits that entails, yet unwilling to give up our pet sins--in denial that they are sins, in denial that they are significant? Happy to be a status quo Christian, content to pay your dues in the form of external duties which promise the assurance and approval of others.
The temptation to ignore what seems like small, petty sins; to purposely not think too deeply, because once you give more thought to application you almost always end up being faced with a call to conviction, repentance, action.
God makes it clear to His people, in no uncertain terms, that holiness is crucial to Him and His people. He condemns the complacency and false assurance of the prophets, who did nothing to address the sin in their own life or in the lives of the people they ministered to. Destruction and judgment.
How do we know when we have twisted the truth in this way? What are the signs that we too, like Israel, have created our own version of a convenient, comfortable Christianity? Created, in essence, our own custom-made idea of God that doesn't challenge our desires and lifestyle--focusing on the attributes that we like, dismissing those that make us feel uncomfortable.
Truth will humble and challenge us, will spur us onto active change, will lead us back to God as the reason and solution.
This--versus complacency, false peace, corruption, flattery that feeds your vanity and self-reliance, condones materialism and greed, panders to what people like to hear, seeking always to be more palatable, not to challenge or push you out of your comfort zone. (v5-12)
We need to be wary, whenever our faith becomes too comfortable, too convenient.
If, each time our conscience pricks us, we always have an argument or excuse to brush that uncomfortable sensation away, and continue our lives without having to take any action.
If we assess others (especially our spiritual leaders and mentors) solely in terms of how good they make us feel about ourselves, and whether they say what we like to hear, if they get in the way of how we want to live our lives. Getting ingenious at finding Bible verses which can be interpreted to support what we want.
"Then they will cry to the Lord, But He will not hear them; He will even hide His face from them at that time, because they have been evil in their deeds."
God's judgment sounds harsh. But--like how Aslan's "not a tame lion"--He is a real God, not One that we can rewrite to suit our whims and moods. His holiness, His righteousness, His justice, are unchangeable and perfect. And thankfully so.
This comes right before the beautiful image of peace and contentment in chapter 4, the famous "everyone under his own vine and fig tree," (v 4) for God's people who "walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever." (v 5)
Walk. Not consult, when convenient; consider; get approval from.
Will walk. Present tense, with an indication of the future.
An ongoing, active relationship which is the basis for our identity, our purpose, our direction.
"For all people walk each in the name of his god--"
--the myriad idols and desires and passions that control us all--
"...but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
Forever and ever."
image by Manki Kim from Unsplash
The idea that stress is an unavoidable part of (specifically) Singaporean everyday life is so widely accepted that I was surprised when someone challenged that assumption.
On one hand, it is a legitimate reason that our culture doesn’t make it easy to maintain control and balance over your life. The systems and infrastructures in place often are built without any consideration for anything other tha KPI, and are not conducive for people who want more than KPI. Education, workplace culture and expectations, the goals and lifestyle standards and values that our culture subconsciously and implicitly incalcate in us, all these function on the basis that people devote themselves 100% to them. Success, at least within the context of those systems, is not programmed to come otherwise.
It's tempting to think the problem is just your culture. I’ve heard people fantasize about how working or living overseas would let them escape from the stress in Singapore, that there’s nothing we can do about it as it’s everywhere, it’s the basis of all our infrastructures, we just have to suck it up. But this minimizes the impact and role of individual responsibility. It’s naïve to think that other people in other cultures don’t face this problem—they do, perhaps manifested differently, but they do. Changing your location is just a quick-fix. Sooner or later you’re going to find yourself feeling stressed again, and the answer is not packing your bags once more.
This is my own opinion, but I think of Christ’s words when He called us to “be in the world, not of it.” The importance of the individual witness we have, each in our corner—not isolating ourselves and avoiding the problems in the world, but actively doing what we can to make a difference, wherever we are.
The next easiest response to fantasizing about moving overseas is to play the cynic and shrug in fatalistic doom. Just suck it up. Everyone you know is complaining of the same thing, after all. If you don’t want to be broke or an absolute failure you just have to accept being stressed out, right?
This again is actually just another way of accepting to, and conforming to, the culture around us—not exactly a very godly culture either, as you can see if you consider its role models, goals, definition of success, and the route to get there.
How do we respond to stress? How do we deal with stress and perhaps more importantly, are we unconsciously expecting/reinforcing stress in our lives?
Like it or not, the choices you make reflect your priorities, since much of life is about trade-offs/opportunity cost. We can make choices that enable us to live more thoughtfully, more purposefully, more meaningfully; more restfully, more peacefully, with more time for others, with more time for things that matter. It sounds so ideal, doesn’t it? Everyone talks about work life balance, but it’s become just another impossibly unrealistic concept like owning your own car and house for millenials—and a whole lot more abstract.
What exactly is work life balance and how do we achieve it? Don’t wait for the perfect job to fall into your lap, a family which doesn’t give you problems, supportive friends who chio (invite out) you at convenient times, an understanding boss, the end of this big project, when you’ve caught up on your sleep debt, when you’ve gotten into the habit of getting up early instead of sleeping through six alarms every morning and rushing out of the door.
For most people, most of the time, it’s not a big drastic decision that radically alters your everyday schedule and your plan for the next five years (there are too many “taking off to travel the world for a year how about you?” posts online giving people the wrong impression that it’s all or nothing; either you continue being stressed out or you have to do something radical that usually entails you quitting your job and throwing responsibilities—financial or otherwise—to the wind. That’s nice, Karen, but we can’t all be doing that.
If you can do that, well, that’s nice; but for those of us who can’t, does it mean we can’t do anything about our current situation?
Whether this boils down to the decisions you make on saving/spending money, the goals you form for yourself, leaving a job or changing the way you work in it, finding alternatives, or managing your time, each choice you make is the same thing—you sacrifice or give up one thing in order to achieve more of the other. Which, and why?
Again, “be in the world, not of it;” be the difference. Challenge cultural expectations, when you see a need to challenge the values they're based on. Help others to see alternatives, to think twice instead of simply blindly accepting whatever is thrown at them. Redefine priorities if you need to. Let go of certain unhelpful habits. Think about whether the way you're spending your every day now is something you can thank God for sincerely, something you can present to Him with gladness. Consider that we were made for so much more than than the endless cycle of generating and using money. Remember that our lack of peace, our lack of contentment, even our lack of enjoyment of our lives, reflects our lack of spiritual understanding of Who God is, and what it means to serve Him, to glorify Him.
Be the salt and the light. Even if it means you need to sit down and think about how to live more purposefully--not exactly the activity you feel drawn to after a long day, if we're being honest...
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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