How many of you want to be a blessing to your church?
Some hands appear--hopefully, that is.
How many of you want to feel blessed because of church?
A lot more hands appear--presumably, based on the general discontent that characterizes our current attitude towards the church. Sure, there are problems--when has there ever not been?--new struggles, old ones, weak people, miscommunication; nothing new under the sun, to quote Ecclesiastes 1:9.
Well, here are 5 ways to bless your church--and yourself in the process, because the two come together:
1. Don't be a church-ninja. You can be a regular attendee but unable to name more than five people; or perhaps only the usher on duty that Sunday knows you even turned up at all. Don't come for service wrapped in an invisible cloak and magically vanish right after that. Sometimes people just need that little bit of initiative. Sometimes they just need an answering smile to be brave enough to approach you (from my own experience, this is very much the case.) Go make a coffee and a friend in the process. Don't hide in the toilet or seek refuge in your phone, tucked away in the empty worship hall after everyone's left. It's so easy, especially in a big church, but even in a small one, to keep to yourself. This applies to whether you're a visitor or a regular attendee, someone who maybe grew up in church but feels disconnected and insecure. It's easy to do nothing; but then you shouldn't be surprised if you
Reach out to people. And pray for the wisdom and love--and yes, maybe courage too--that you need to do that.
2. Get your hands dirty. Be involved in serving. Whether in small, prosaic ways and needs--coming from a small church which rents classrooms for our worship venue, setting up the place (ie. tagging all the desks with numbers and drawing a diagram on the whiteboard so we could rearrange the classroom back in order afterwards, setting out chairs and laying out hymnbooks etc) was one important, if often downplayed, area of service as well as a very real need. Take a look at what are the existing areas of service and needs in your church; whether committing to pray for people, visiting someone who is unwell, hosting visitors, or simply offering to usher. Smile and hold out a hymnbook. How much simpler can it be?
And consider: what are your gifts, your passions, or your assets, and how can they translate into a way you can bless your church? Perhaps you want to try your hand at flower arrangements. Bring an arrangement every Sunday and remind people of the beauty of the Creator we are gathered to worship. Or bless others with your signature recipe, like that grandma in my church who makes wonderful Nonya kuih in the true traditional style, down to using the dye from blue flowers. If love was soft, sweet and sticky, that would be it. Open your home or organize something for the children; maybe sharing the new waffle iron you got, or some free movie tickets your boss gave you. If the hymnbooks need wrapping, step up.
Serving takes sacrifice, courage, vision, and dedication. It may start with something as small as volunteering to wash cups or push a wheelchair; but there is so much more that God has in mind for us in serving, than simply being the human instrument to get the job at hand done. Being involved in serving helps you to understand and appreciate the others who serve you; helps you understand your church and its needs better; one of best ways to integrate and get to know people, when you do things for them and together with them.
3. Affirm people. In every church there is a backbone of people who are serving faithfully, often unacknowledged, often over many years. Like pastors and teachers who are more often criticised and taken for granted than it would be nice to acknowledge, they need encouragement. Take the time to be thankful. Notice those who are working in the background, and more often than not there is much you can learn from them.
4. Take charge of your spiritual growth. Don't see this as the pastor and Bible study teacher's job. I think they'll thank you for it. Jesus told Peter to shepherd His flock, not put them in incubators on tube feeding. The church is there to encourage and facilitate spiritual growth; it is the means to an end, rather than an end in itself. If you think that being there to sing hymns and warm a chair in the congregation is the extent of your input in accomplishing this goal, please think again. You're not here to be spoon fed spiritual truths and maturity like a pate de foie gras goose, though admittedly that would be a much cushier way of sanctification. Do your devotions. Read your Bible on your own, not just every Sunday during the worship reading. Study the parts of the Bible you don't understand, ask intelligent questions, don't assume that your spiritual growth depends on how knowledgeable or gifted your pastor or Bible Study teacher is.
When you take the responsibility for your own spiritual growth, you will become less passive, less quick to judge, less entitled. More open and humble. Don't see church as your weekly dose of Christianity, like enforced exercise; hit the gymn on your own, embrace the challenges, the enjoyment, and the benefits that come with it.
5. Understand that every church has its strengths and weaknesses, as they are made up of sinful people. Perhaps I'm not one to speak, as someone who has been in the same church all her life; but as I see and hear others discuss the seemingly impossible task of finding and choosing a suitable church, I've concluded that it's rather like choosing a spouse.
In other words, no one person/church will ever be perfect. They will still wake up with bad breath in the mornings or leave dirty laundry on the floor. What's important, then, is deciding what combo of pros and cons works for you? What strengths are greater, more important, than the weaknesses? What's your deal breaker? And just like choosing a spouse, this decision and this relationship requires you to be humble and ready to admit your own mistakes and sins. To be willing to forgive others. To see that people who have different opinions, personalities, etc are God-given ways for you to learn humility, forbearance, love.
To understand the magnitude of Christ's love in learning what sacrificial, selfless love is, first-hand.
There are acquaintances, (a term I think we ought to use more, without fear or embarrassment) there are friends (a term I think we use too carelessly, until we sometimes forget what it's supposed to mean) and there are the very special Chosen Few, the people we feel most comfortable around, the people we would choose to be with us if we were marooned on a desert island. That is, unless you're one of those pragmatic people considering cannibalism.
Let me explain.
Acquaintances is an old-fashioned word that has dropped out of use, but which I think is a more honest and helpful term than the all-inclusive, vague 'friend,' which has reached the same level of meaninglessness as 'thing' and 'dude.' Growing up, I remember being very particular about how I used these words (and probably sounding incredibly stuck up without meaning to) because I had unfortunately read Anne of Green Gables and been influenced on the full significance of the word 'friend,' 'bosom friend' to use the exact phrase. I insisted that the kids I played with at the playground weren't my 'friends,' they were just acquaintances. Because we didn't particularly like each other. We just needed enough people so we could play and have fun. Whether it was you, or him, or someone new, it didn't really matter. Could you run fast? Were you a poor loser? That was all the information that really mattered. If we never saw each other again we wouldn't miss each other, and we could mutually acknowledge this frankly without hard feelings on either side.
I feel it's kind of a pity that we use the word friend so generically now. Anyone we know the names of immediately gets classified as a friend, because we're embarrassed to admit we're not close...
...which makes no sense. Life would be a lot simpler if everyone was fine with being honest. And--more importantly--I think we would be a lot less confused and insecure about the whole concept of friendship, and better equipped to build real, satisfying friendships. I could bring up the outdated but still applicable example of Facebook 'friends,' but I think we've all heard that rehashed as proof of the evils of social media and the hopeless state of the next generation (us) so, no.
This was an idea covered in Jerry and Mary White's book, To Be a Friend. It wasn't exactly a book I would have picked up to read but it turned out to be thought-provoking, raising many issues on the whole concept of friendship and its abstract, inconsistent, sometimes confused application in my life. For example, in chapter 3, they examined different types of friendships, from acquaintances to casual/close/best friends. And as the book unfolded its discussion of what friendship entailed, and how it should be cultivated, the underlying factor beneath it all became clearer and clearer, the difference between acquaintances and friends: purposefulness.
Not that this is a radical idea. But I think what stood out was that this idea of purposefulness encompasses more than simply "making time for each other," which is what we tend to reduce it to. Yeah, friendships aren't static--we have to make time for them! And we leave it at that. We squeeze out a space in our schedule for one meal together and then think we've done our share. I liked how, while dealing with the need for purposefulness, To Be a Friend didn't get sucked into the overly simplistic make time=friendship equation, and gave equal coverage to other aspects.
To purposefully build friendships required more than just time together: energy and effort, vulnerability, and even "unanticipated and unplanned costs," which was an additional category I didn't expect. Under "energy and effort," they included the "freedom to say no": "Every relationship requires energy and effort, of which we have limited amounts. We cannot do everything and respond to everyone...we need to be intentional in [friendship's] development and priority. This is particularly true for the ten to twenty close relationships [an estimate] that are current and active in our lives right now."
To me, this was a wake-up call for the need to prioritize the input I'd been previously unthinkingly giving to whichever friendship called most loudly for at the moment. It is so easy to live life prioritizing the urgent rather than the important. My grandparents, for example. They seem to be always available, patiently waiting for my schedule to accommodate them, compared to friends whom it's harder to spend time with, who have exams and limited holidays, who seem much more elusive and urgent, as result, to 'catch.' And the grands get pushed to the back burner.
It was a good and sobering realization to ask myself, what are the ten to twenty close relationships in my life right now, which I value the most--and am I actually making a correlating effort at actively building those relationships?
A great insight for introverts like me was the next paragraph: "Keep in mind that some relationships build you up and others drain you. The relationships that give us great pleasure take little energy and effort to develop. The ones that drain us have a higher cost, but our commitment to the friendship may draw us to pay for the price."
It was a great relief to be able to admit without feeling guilt, that that are such things as "high-maintenance" friendships, and that you can only take so many, or so much of one, before the relationship becomes unhealthy and perhaps even sours as result. Know your limits, for your own sake as well as your friends'. The Whites gave an example of some friends whose understanding of this ensures balance: "We have friends who are quick to respond to the needs of others. When they are depleted of energy, they announce, 'We're cancelling the weekend!' Without guilt, they wipe the calendar clean for a few days to restore their energy. They wisely recognize they cannot help others if they are exhausted. They make it a priority to guard their health so they have more to give to others."
This highlights how another aspect of purposeful friendship, I realized, is considering each friendship within the context of the circle of people in your life--whether that means different stages of priority, or simply stewarding the time and energy you have to invest in each, without feeling guilty or embarrassed about doing so. After all, one of the requirements for a strong friendship is honesty; and that starts with being honest with yourself.
I've been thinking more and more about friendship as I get older, as I balance old friendships with new ones, maintain different sorts of friendships. It's not enough to just be aimlessly, passively friendly, responding to whichever friendship is most proactive or demanding. Time is short and there are, there will be, more and more people in your life. Some will fade out if you don't hold onto them. Some will come in whether or not you're ready for them, like "divine interruptions" to use Elisabeth Elliot's phrase. Some are perhaps only there for this season of life.
With a one-size-fits-all, first-come-first-served mentality to friendship, you swing between feeling burnt out and yet vaguely dissatisfied. Guilty for not doing enough or keeping up with certain people, or for saying no. Awkward when you realize the generic "friends" label disguises a whole lot of uncomfortable disjuncts, from how well you actually know the person and how much you actually like each other's company, to wondering if you ought to like So-and-So's Instagram posts even though you hardly know anything about them (still learning the ropes for social media etiquette as you can see. I ought to have been born in the previous generation.)
Unstable, to summarize. The paradox of feeling exhausted from having "too many friends", yet discontented because you feel you "don't have real friends," which seems to be a common sentiment from what I hear. I think purposefulness has a lot to do with this. And to be honest, purposefulness is HARD. First of all you need time (yes, that word's coming up again in this post) to be purposeful. You don't just read an article and have your life automatically transformed (like listening to a sermon; sounds familiar?) You need to sit down and evaluate what areas you need to be more purposeful in, and how--practically, concretely--you're going to make that happen. You're going to need focus and perseverance, and maybe even courage. And even if this takes shape during your morning commute to work, and looks like nothing more than a scribbled memo on your phone notes, in order to tackle it in the first place there must have been mental and emotional energy as well.
Where we are now, where entertainment and consumerism encourage passivity, and social media cultivates spontaneity, it's hard to be purposeful. Perhaps it's the first sacrifice we make for our friends, for better friendships, and for ourselves, as stewards with limitations of time, energy, and emotional capacity.
I once read somewhere that when you look back at your spiritual journey you should be able to see specific, distinct points where you grew--over an experience, maybe, or learning something; through reading a book; through a person; or simply a realization, or development on your own. To be healthy spiritually requires progress, forward movement which is overall greater than the constant (inevitable) lapses into sin, the failures, the weaknesses.
To me, many of these points of growth, if you want to call them that, were books.
Others were people whose lives made me think twice about my own, my faith, my impact on others.
Or certain events--usually painful ones--which, in John Donne's words, battered my heart into a better receptor of God. But also beautiful ones--like discovering, through the unlikely idea of using daily commute time on a bus along a tree-flanked highway during off-peak traffic, that prayer could be joyful worship, could be wonderfully comforting, could be everything David tried to show us, the essence of
One significant one was my discovery of the Holy Spirit's significance. I don't know if I've wrote about this before, but for background, the Holy Spirit had always been the most vague and abstract, the most unrelatable and mysterious, of the three Persons of the Trinity. I prayed to God the Father and felt a personal relationship with Him. I had the Bible to introduce Jesus to me, and His relationship to me as my Saviour gradually deepened my understanding and love for Him. I could see clearly the place and distinct roles of God the Father, and God the Son, but God the Holy Spirit almost threw me off. I remember, as a very young believer overhearing an argument between a Christian and a non-believer on the logic of the Trinity, and suddenly feeling, very strongly, what was the point of adding the Holy Spirit in anyway? (from a writer's point of view, I realize, as if the whole of Christianity was just one wonderful story)
My lack of understanding of and relationship to the Holy Spirit made me feel like I was teetering on a crisis of faith at that point of time. Thankfully, if years later, this changed, and it was one of the greatest points of progress in my spiritual life.
When I found out more about the role of the Holy Spirit, I realized why the struggle against sin, the struggle to grow in spiritual disciplines of prayer and reading the Bible, had been so hard and so flagging.
So many places in the New Testament Jesus repeatedly tells His disciples how important the Holy Spirit will be to them, and why:
"But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you." (John 14:26)
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
"At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit..." (Luke 10:21)
"Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers." (Acts 9:31)
"If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)
Knowledge and understanding. Power/ability and courage. And yes, joy. Encouragement. There is so much that we can receive from the Holy Spirit. Greatest of all, He is a gift that we can look to God for, that we can even expect.
As I study the role of the Holy Spirit I realize that He is not just there to make sure we get smarter or holier. He is helper, comforter. Talk about guardian angels. We have One greater than angels; here to gently, lovingly help us in our feeble struggles, and even comfort us in our confused heartaches.
He is the One who enables us to understand what we read in the Bible or what we experience. Who enables us to benefit from it, by opening our eyes to see what that means when applied to our lives; and moving our hearts to take that action.
He is the One--perhaps most significantly of all--Who first changes our hearts to desire God, to see our sin, to want righteousness, to yearn for forgiveness and repentance and change, for Christ. I can't stress this enough when I teach Sunday School (I believe in a Christ-centered, gospel-approach to Sunday School) because I remember all too clearly from my own experience, how my own conversion began, and the role that the Holy Spirit played in it by showing me and convicting me of my sin.
So many times as a young believer I had went about tackling temptation without realizing the importance of the Holy Spirit. It was very much me, on my own, struggling to put off sin with only the help of my flimsy willpower. I would beat myself up for it afterwards, in a morass of confused guilt and shame and self-reproach--why can't I do better? I love Him, why am I so weak and silly? Naturally, after a while I slipped into a phase of disillusionment and discouragement. I gave up trying so hard, because don't I fail anyway? I guess I really don't love Him as much as I thought I do. I don't know why I can't make my love for Him and my desire for holiness translate into concrete action in my life. Somehow I just can't do it. It's not that I don't want to...
I struggled along, flaggingly, at that level for years, the longest plateau in my spiritual life, if not actually downward slope. It was only a new understanding of the Holy Spirit that made me realize hey, I'm not alone in this. God knew how hard this would be. He's not asking me to do this based sheerly on my willpower and wisdom. He's actually given me a Helper. A Comforter. A source of power to change me and enable me and empower me...
I finally understood. That was Jesus talked so often about the Holy Spirit as He tried to prepare His disciples for His leaving them. That was why it was possible to resist sin, to understand the Bible, to be moved to repent.
"God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them..."
When my brother and I went busking we had the opportunity to see many different types of people in the hours we spent playing music at the shopping mall, and specifically, different types of givers. Some were young parents who gave their toddlers coins to drop into our box; others tried to take photos of us; some lively teenagers cheered for us; and some
I remember mainly two types of people: those who gave on the spur of the moment, fumbling in their pockets and flipping a coin or two; and those who actually stopped to listen for a while first. The second category made those hours worthwhile. They would clap, give a thumbs-up, or tell us they enjoyed the music; at the least, a warm smile--and usually they would give a bill. Not simply clearing their loose change.
It was a good reminder to me, as I realized that when I give to buskers I tend to be the first category of people-- smileless, probably a harassed expression, one eye on the watch, almost dutiful; you couldn't tell whether they actually enjoyed the music or not. My head full of my destination and my to-do list. Giving this was just an impromptu, by-the-way idea that I went with because it wouldn't cost me too much, and was a nice thing to do...
The last chapter of 1st Corinthians gives detailed instructions on giving. Paul's directions about how the donations were to be collected seem at best unimportant admin instructions which, like the reminders to Timothy to bring his cloak and books at the end of 2 Timothy, I usually dismiss as little personal details without much theological significance. Search the Scriptures, however, challenged me to reread those directions on giving with the intent to learn what the Bible had to say about Christian giving.
I thought back on my own experiences of giving, and realized that true enough, Paul's reason for asking that the collections be prepared beforehand weren't just for efficiency's sake. How many times had I been caught at a Christian concert, or visiting a church, where the collection was suddenly handed round and I absolutely panicked. Heavens, did I bring enough cash? I'm broke, but I'm too embarrassed not to put anything in--can I just give a five dollar bill? Wait is that a fifty dollar bill the woman next to me is putting in--I've got to give at least a ten then--do I have a ten--I'm so flustered let's just stick a hand in and pretend I gave something--but then it's for a crisis relief--it's not like I don't CARE about all those little kids--well, if I'd known sooner--
Alright, you can laugh. Spontaneous giving can be one of the nicest feelings in the world. Sometimes.
At other times, it can be really bad for us.
That is why Paul insisted on encouraging intentional giving, rather than spur-of-the-moment giving.
The giving which the Bible depicts is a two-way thing, which emphasizes the effect of the exchange on the two parties involved rather than the object itself. The same old theme: the heart first, always. 2 Corinthians 8:12 reinforces that.
Paul reinforced the need for thoughtful and orderly giving, knowing that purposeful, intentional giving ensures:
the act of giving doesn't become a flashy display that encourages comparison and pride. Instead, it becomes a humbling act which, at a calculated, conscious cost to self, encourages a genuine love for the person you give to.
the act of giving, in being orderly, remains sincere and intentional. Just like impulse buys, it's easy to give or promise someone something in the spur of the moment, and only later, when you actually think through what that costs you, regret the decision.
As a high-functioning introvert this is always my problem. At that moment I'm predominantly eager to please the person, airily convinced that I can handle this on top of my other commitments, and happy to do it. Once I come home, the party's over, and I'm recuperating in bed, reality kicks in and I start to realize it's actually the last thing I want to do, it's a busy week already, I'd much rather catch up on sleep after all, and why did I say yes anyway? Impromptu giving is fun, but often neglects to consider the costs of giving, so that we may end up with regret and even resentment.
True giving, like the gift we received on the cross, comes without regret or resentment, because it is intentional and purposeful--it has counted all the costs, and accepts them joyfully and willingly. Without pride, only love; thought through, and prepared in advance; in this case, before the dawn of time.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are