2015 is coming at me like a speeding car, while I am scrambling to gather 2014 up and put it away. Every time, the speed with which one year slips away and a new one rushes in leaves me breathless. Why didn't they plan a breather week in between, so pathetic people like myself can properly transition to the next year instead of being hurled headlong?
I've realized that I need to physically, mentally, and emotionally prepare myself for a new year (high maintenance, I know. If I don't turn out to be a genius I'll feel very cheated.)
Physically: my desk, my closet, my shelves. (Don't laugh, people who are blessed--or burdened, I haven't decided which--in not feeling a pressing need for an orderly and pleasant environment to live happily and productively.)
Mentally: squeezing the time out to reflect on the past year through writing. And yes, I believe in new year resolutions as they shape your attitude and set the tone for the next chapter of life.
Emotionally: reaffirming relationships, taking time to touch base with the important people in my life.
(I haven't managed to do all of that yet for 2014, but I still have several days, after all.
Actually, two days, to be precise.
Not very promising.)
Looking back, it was tough. It was a year which gave me much joy, but which nevertheless found its greatest meaning and definition in pain. One of the most difficult years I've experienced in my short and blessed life. From the memories of pain--or the partially healed scars--two things gradually surfaced as I thought and wrote. I have often thought the writing process distills our experiences, so to speak, leaving us with a clarity of thought and understanding about them which we could never achieve otherwise .
The first thing was lostness. (I know that word doesn't exist; the red squiggly line underneath it is squirming in my eyes.)
Confusion. Anxiety. Doubts.
A few years ago I read and made notes on a small short book by C.J. Mahaney. Christ Our Mediator: Finding Passion at the Cross. I was a well-meaning but (more) immature Christian then, and I'm afraid I made and went at a Christian booklist with the same attitude I would have with any other booklist or project list (basically, the way a bull charges: if it goes down, you're done with it.) However, one thing stuck in my memory. Reliable emotions follow when we first focus on objective truth. Not when we locate our faith in our emotional state, as our emotions are unreliable and flawed.
'There's heart-transforming truth in the Scriptures, but you won't encounter it by first trying to feel it.'
I accepted, didn't feel this.
After all, the things I felt strongly about were right and would never change.
2014 taught me that my emotions are as unreliable and unstable and illogical as a rollercoaster.
Let me change that--my emotions are more unreliable, unstable, and illogical than a rollercoaster operated by a rogue raccoon obsessed with world domination.
(I'm sorry about the raccoon; it was there for alliteration as well as a side effect of Guardians of the Galaxy.)
I learnt, in a hard and bewildering way, that life cannot be run by emotions, attractive as all those pretty Pins with FOLLOW YOUR HEART slogans are.
I felt so strongly about that months ago. Now it's not half as important as it was then...
I thought I could never be happy unless I had that--but I am...
I never imagined I'd care about this. That I'd have an issue with this...
I thought I could never really like him--I thought I could never like her less--
I thought I was past having struggles like this....
We need objective truth. We need the unshakable principles of the Bible to be the foundation even when our minds are confused and our hearts are chaotic. It may not be half as appealing a slogan as FOLLOW YOUR HEART; but it better reflects the flawed, unreliable, unstable, gullible and vulnerable characteristic of the human heart--your heart.
Just this morning my Search the Scriptures, on Jeremiah 37 and 38 examined the character of King Zedekiah. Zedekiah never actually did what God commanded, but he never seemed to actually make up his mind either. He would secretly call for Jeremiah and ask his advice (which he didn't take) and ask for God's word (which he didn't heed.) He couldn't seem to decide whether to be outright mean to Jeremiah or not. Apparently, the people around him and his mood at the time were the determining factors. Zedekiah had no guiding principles. He pretty much made decisions based on his situation and feelings; whether the people around him pressured him or not; whether he felt brave and confident, or not.
I felt like Zedekiah. Confused and unsure. Unstable. One moment up on a euphoric high of confidence, the next plunged into uncertainty and doubt as my emotions, the situation, and people around me changed.
Emotions, though they may feel like the greatest and most significant factor in any situation, are actually the most unreliable.
Back to the Bible. Back to Christ.
Reliable emotions follow when we first focus on objective truth.
Thank you--belatedly--C.J Mahaney.
Much of the pain I struggled with in 2014 was the pain of loss.
Losing people, physically and emotionally.
Losing things which had stayed constant and unchanging all your life until now.
Losing hopes you didn't realize were so important to you till they were dashed.
Yes, these are all parts of being alive and human in our world. I'm not bitter about having experienced them--just smarting. As it was, each experience--the same pain; a different reason--felt like another finger being peeled off, steadily and ruthlessly, the various things I had been clinging onto and relying on. It hurt. Oh boy, it hurt. It hurt so much it made me turn my empty, raw hands to God instead and realize that He was the only thing which could not be torn away, the only thing which I could rely on safely.
My hands were full of my gummy bear collection. Too full to hold onto Him, until my gummy bears were knocked or snatched out of my hands one by one. Again, I had confused the gifts with the Giver. Legitimately good--who doesn't like gummy bears?--but in comparison, nothing.
And last of all--
As you might have guessed, after coming to terms with these two lessons, by default I learnt a third one, the subtlest but perhaps most significant of them all.
For a Christian, at least, pain isn't something wholly and hopelessly bad.
We are all afraid of pain. Knowing that it is inevitable, that it's going to hit us sooner or later, is perhaps the worst part of the fear. But knowing that something good can come of it gives us hope. Hope that even when it happens, it's not the end--that there's more to pain than just hurting and suffering. That it is possible to become stronger, wiser, better, through the pain.
That God is greater, greater than pain, greater than imperfections, greater than we could imagine.
May 2015 be a year in which you learn to know and love Him more; in the joys and
in the pain, but especially in the pain.
In Jeremiah 24, we get a brief shot of Israelite history as the background to the vision of the figs.
Jeconiah, the king, was dethroned and taken away captive--seemingly defeated, doomed to humiliation and a horrible death at the hands of captors infamous for their cruelty. Zedekiah, on the other hand, was given his throne and allowed to glory in the kingdom and power allotted to him.
Have you ever felt like Jeconiah must have felt then?
In exile. With everything you rely and take comfort in, everything you're proud of, everything that gives you delight, stripped away from you. A bleak future staring you in the face. Humiliation. Insecurity. Fear.
Echoes of these feeling have swamped my heart before, even if my situation was far from being as extreme as Jeconiah's. Feeling that God has punished you, deserted you. Feeling that others are being blessed while you suffer miserable. Feeling bitter, inept, and forsaken. Feeling miserably alone and inadequate.
I struggled with all these feelings when my two sisters left within months of each other, after having lived our entire lives together, to study abroad, one for two years, another for four. I had grown up in their shadows--not always happily so, I have to admit, but nevertheless sheltered by them. We were close. It took me this experience to realize how much so. They had always been there to reassure me, scold me, guide me, do the big important grownup stuff while I looked safely on from the fringes, went tamely along with. All the insecurities in my life which I had never had to address rose up and overwhelmed me--inadequacies at reaching out to people; serving; relationships. I still remember how, at that time, I was struggling with feeling disconnected and isolated--the typical teenage woes, I know, but poignant at that time all the same. This new trial on top of that just seemed to make everything brim over.
Why did You put me here, Lord? I'm a miserable misfit.
Why did You make me the one who stays behind when I'm the one who could be best spared?
I get frustrated [reaching out to people]...at this point in life my people relations are in a terrible mess.
I'm so afraid of and burdened by the path ahead.
Looking back, I guess that petty as the whole thing seems, it was one of the greatest emotional crisis I had faced so far, and I can only thank God for bringing me through what could have easily spiraled into a deepening chasm of self-pity, bitterness, selfishness, and self-imposed alienation.
We have two choices when God strips away everything we have been relying on. We can rage, become embittered, pity ourselves, and pull away from others as we focus more and more on ourselves and our needs.
Or we can learn to trust that this pain is the means of a special lesson God lovingly prepared for us because He knows we need it. That we need to be humbler...that we need to stop relying on ourselves or on other things, and return to Him. That He means to ultimately bless us, difficult as it is to accept that now--just as He did, in Jeconiah's case.
What seemed like ultimate destruction and defeat was actually God's means of redemption and restoration. Their tribulation in their own eyes and eyes of the world, was ultimately going to be the means of salvation and blessings.
The ones who really should have been pitied were those who were secure, self-reliant, confident and proud in their power, nothing to jolt their complacency.
Those who were sent into exile, in humiliation, hopelessness and helplessness, were the ones God intended to save.
Miraculously, the exile itself--the very means of pain--was the very means of grace and goodness.
God's means of saving us aren't obvious most of the time.
I'm learning that, slowly and painfully.
It's a truth that teaches me to have greater expectations of God's power and wisdom, that gives hope and peace even amid trials.
'Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge those who are
carried away for their own good...for I will set my eyes on them for good...
...I will build them and not pull them down,
and I will plant them and not pull them up...
...I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the Lord...for they shall return to Me with their whole heart.'
Jeremiah 24: 5-7
I type this with a tissue box on one hand and a mound of crumpled tissues on the other, like one of those 'Number Function Machines' in childhood maths where perfectly normal numbers go in at one side and come out transformed into useless gibberish (at least, so it seemed to me.) I've brought the lively souvenirs of memories and germs back with me from the past ten days in China. Met many people. Struggled determinedly with expressing myself in Chinese. Missed tropical weather to the very tips of my frozen toes. Fed seagulls. Experienced a, how shall I put it, motley variety of toilets. Came back to face a relapse of the viruses I thought I'd recovered from, suitcases clamouring to be unpacked, and life (basically a full schedule) clamouring to be lived.
Most of all, as with every trip but especially mission trips, many thoughts and reflections to be slowly mulled over and written down as they crystallise. We don't do much soul-searching today, though we're told to 'self-apply...examine yourself...think about what you've learnt.' Corny as it may sound, we do need to think if we wish life to be as meaningful as we know it should be. From the seemingly random experiences we are given, there are actually concrete 'life-lessons,' so to speak, (overused as the word is) to be distilled if we take time to think over what we have seen and felt. In fact, in the future those thoughts will stand out with the greatest significance, long after we have forgotten the little details which initially distract us from considering greater, overarching meaning.
Growing up in a tiny church which was basically just five or so families for the longest time, church was always comfortable and cozy (despite the initial phase of dresses and lacy socks which we complained put us at a disadvantage when racing with the boys.) The phrase church family, overused as it may be today, was far from a Christianese cliche and very real to me. This was the kind of community where you knew who made the funny sounding sneeze during service, where aunties would tell you if your pants had come unzipped (and help you zip it up unobtrusively), where a good number of your church friends had stayed over at your house before, where the younger kids walked around in the clothes the older kids had been walking around in two years before. This initial 'desert' stretch of many years in which we hardly had any visitors, let alone any who stayed, was probably very discouraging to the adults. But to me, at least, those years felt like a refuge in the mountains; tucked away cozily in your own homely community, a cotton wool situation perhaps.
We were all different, yes; homeschooled and public schooled, fluent or handicapped in Chinese, young, old--but the common experience of those years had unified us, strengthened us in our common areas, and enabled us to laugh over our differences.
Many years on, it's a very different case--there are so many new people; church has become as hectic as one of those games of hide-and-catch, with so many faces, so many people to talk to; so many needs. Obviously, it brought us much joy and encouragement, and the wonderful new friends God in His goodness has brought have blessed our small church with much vibrancy, love, and delight. Obviously, it is a good thing to be growing as a church. Obviously, it is a wonderful thing to meet more fellow Christians.
But when the inevitable happens--when people start to see each others' differences; when cliques start to form, when you overhear gossip, when disagreements and even quarrels can't be completely resolved, when people talk unlovingly of each other. My heart almost broke when I first saw these things happening. Of course, I knew that every church would have these problems, simply because every (fallen) human has these problems. Of course, I knew they probably already existed, I was just too small to see any of them. But they broke my heart anyway, because I couldn't believe they were actually happening right here in my own church family. Church family. I finally understood why to some people that word had none of the warmth and sincerity it had always had to me.
If only we weren't so different, it would be easier to get along. That unspoken thought seems to hover in my mind, in the minds of others. Can't relate to her. Can't understand why she's like that. Can't agree with them. Why can't they be more like me?
This trip, I met so many different groups of believers it was overwhelming to see how God was working in so many different ways, through so many different people. Educated, intellectual people. Elderly, rural farmers who couldn't speak any English. Children who had devastating backgrounds of poverty and neglect. All of them received us warmly. Language barrier; culture clash; no prior knowledge; you name it, we had it, all the cons of forming a relationship were pretty much ours. Nevertheless the instant impression was the love with which we already saw each other with, because of our common love for Christ. Before even knowing each other, we knew we were kindred spirits, so to speak. How different we were--how different, even, they were to each other. How different all the various ministries I'd seen, each led by people with different callings, skills, and burdens, let alone backgrounds and personalities.
And that, to me, was the glorious power of God. How all these differences were nevertheless united in Him. Differences were good--gloriously and wonderfully good--witnessing for, serving God as all the amount of sameness in the world never could have.
To our secular minds, perhaps, differences are bad. Even as Christians, looking at our church community, differences seem to be destructive.
If only we weren't so different, it would be easier to get along.
Are differences really at the root of all our problems?
I believe that we need to stop seeing church the way we see any other social gathering--something which may seem self-evident, but in fact is a subtly pervasive attitude we don't even realize we have. Yes, differences make it hard to connect, to relate, to understand, most importantly to love. But in God's eyes differences are beautiful. He uses us in our differences to serve and witness for Him, more widely, more greatly than we could if we were all the same. Yet He gives us the common bond of love for Christ. This overcomes the conflicts that will (humanly) arise from our differences.
As for church? Why do we prioritize other affinities like career, schooling, background, preferences, even callings, in forming relationships, just as we do in any other social event?
We need to see that our sole bond and sole reason for being together is Christ. All other affinities are plus points--not vice versa. We don't worship God after we've found people like ourselves whom we enjoy being with as individuals, and then worship Him as another facet of our sameness.
God is greater than our sameness.
He calls us to be different, in the first place, from the world. Different in a way that glorifies Him--not pandering to our taste. So why do we idolize sameness so much within ourselves?
If we truly see our love for Christ as our main, even sole bond, our differences will stop being such a big issue. Once we stop expecting to and trying to associate only with people like us; once we accept that the whole concept of a church is truly a 'body of Christ'--intrinsically united despite our differences--our relationships in the church will stop being self-centred, and start to be Christ-centred. Truly loving--not merely because you please me and I like being with you, or you make me feel good.
Differences. One of God's gifts to us.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are