image from Unsplash by Umit Bulut
With the COVID19 virus trending everywhere as the greatest concern, especially here in Singapore--where we currently have the highest number of cases outside of China--more and more Christians have taken to fasting and praying.
Fasting is not something that we in the 21st century do often. In fact, it's surrounded by awkwardness, often eyed with suspicion. We mumble about legalism, wonder if trends like intermittent fasting have taken away its significance, and feel embarrassed talking about it in a society which celebrates food and the enjoyment of food (what to eat for lunch is the highlight of many Singaporeans's working day!) at the same time as having a heightened awareness of eating disorders. In light of all these, a simple question is at the root--is fasting still valid and useful today?
While preparing to do so as a church, my pastor gave a helpful sermon on fasting which I felt was applicable in helping us develop the right attitudes towards not just fasting, but other spiritual disciplines as well.
First of all, as many New Testament Bible references to fasting indicate--Jesus Himself fasted in Matthew 4--fasting is still valid for us today. Having said that, how do we avoid the legalistic attitude towards it which the Pharisees and scribes had, and which Christ so clearly condemned?
In Matthew 6: 16-18, Christ gives detailed instructions on what fasting should be like, and what it shouldn't. Instead of focusing on the external specifications--what we fast from, how long we fast, etc--He brought the focus to our hearts. Where it should be.
(There is definitely a lot more that can and should be discussed on the topic of fasting, eg. guidelines, types of fasts, etc but I would like to focus on just this aspect of the topic, for this post.)
Firstly, what is the purpose of fasting?
To help us pray better. Not because it can change God's mind, akin to a hunger strike, but by helping us to:
1. get rid of a casual attitude towards prayer. All too often we take prayer for granted, pushing it to the corners of our routines and schedules, since we can do it "anytime anywhere." Like coming for prayer meeting--a specific event/time slot carved out for prayer--fasting helps remind us of how important prayer is, and not to become complacent about it.
2. strengthening our fervency and making our prayers more focused. Similar to the first point, it helps us to take our prayers more seriously, because it costs us more. Though we can pray just as sincerely lying on the sofa after a full meal on a Friday night with no plans, humanly speaking it certainly helps us to take prayer more seriously when we've actually skipped a meal because of it.
3. teaches us to be more submissive and have spiritual wisdom in responding to God's answers for our prayers, EVEN IF they are not what we want. This was a new thought which I appreciated, because it reinforces how fasting is so much more than the "hunger strike" idea we tend to associate it with. Its ultimate purpose is even greater than the request at hand; we also grow spiritually through the process of seeking God's will, praying fervently, and learning to listen in faith. Even if the answer is not what we wanted.
4. to help us make time to pray/pray more/pray for things that we don't usually have time to pray for. This is the perfect comeback to whenever we fall back on the old excuse that we don't have time for that in our regular prayer routine (*raises hand*) I find myself often feeling overwhelmed at the number of things to pray for on my prayer list. What more when there's a special case which requires more time, how can we possibly squeeze everything in? Well, this is what Jesus did. Surrounded by people who needed Him, all clamouring for His help, He regularly sought out time to pray. Even removing Himself to fast in the wilderness.
As a spiritual discipline--and as with any other spiritual discipline, eg. prayer, studying the Word etc-- fasting should not be treated as a painful duty that makes us feel sorry for ourselves. Exercising spiritual disciplines should be a joyful thing, just like how Jesus commands His disciples to anoint their heads and be cheerful when they fast in Matthew 6.
This sounds simple, but in principle is quite ground-breaking to me when I realize how much it applies to the attitude I have towards other spiritual disciplines. Do I read spiritual books out of a sense of duty, so I can feel good/not feel guilty? Do I feel sorry for myself when I sacrifice time/sleep to serve in church, or taking time from my schedule to pray? Perhaps I'm fostering the wrong attitude towards these spiritual disciplines, which keeps me not only from truly benefiting from them, but also prevents me from experiencing joy in them. Perhaps, when we wonder how those "super spiritual" Christians seem to actually enjoy these activities, and feel almost guilty that we *don't*--this is what we've neglected to see.
Likewise, the focus in Matthew 6 is not about whether others see you or not. Jesus' emphasis is rather on the words "in order that" (others might see you.) If we are doing this because we want to fit in, or please others--then we are already failing to do it for the right reason.
Simply put: fasting should strip us of our pride, remind us of our weaknesses and limitations. It should help us to humble ourselves to seek God more sincerely, to pray more fervently, and to accept His will with peace and trust after having wrestled in prayer.
Ironically, the exact opposite would be if it caused us to become proud of our discipline/endurance/holiness in doing it, the way the scribes and Pharisees did. Which unfortunately is what so easily happens if we do it with the wrong motivations or understandings.
I had my first attempt at fasting last week and it was...rather comical. I blame it on foolish decisions and a lack of experience/proper preparation.
Pragmatically speaking, I figured lunch was the best meal to skip. But because I had a class to teach right after that, and I made the mistake of thinking, "oh, I'm fasting for lunch today, so I'll have more than enough time for prayer and other things." Having fallen into the trap of thinking I could combine fasting with skipping-lunch-to-be-more-productive, I definitely wasn't in the right frame of mind for prayer. Sure enough, I found myself running late--even though I had skipped lunch!--let alone with enough time to pray. I hustled off to work feeling bad for my foolish decisions.
On my way back, tired out and feebly resolving to make some time to pray that evening (to make up for my fasting failure haha) I ended up falling asleep on the bus and overshot when I should have gotten off by two stops. It was drizzling too. I hurried off the bus in that semi-panicky sleepy daze and realized with a sinking heart that it would be a long walk back. The traffic was so slow on the opposite side that it probably wasn't worth it catching the bus back.
Struggling with my umbrella, I was about to give way to the usual woe-is-me-today-is-a-Terrible-No-good-Day response, when it suddenly hit me. Now. Now was the perfect time to pray. Despite all my good intentions, I had messed up my intended fasting/prayer slot, but God had granted me this perfect little pocket of time.
Trudging up that path with the scent of rain washed earth, wet trees plashing tears softly onto my umbrella, alone except for an occasional food delivery rider, everything just fell into place. My sleepy daze sorted itself out into a calm, focused, peaceful frame of mind, where I could remember most of the prayer points I had jotted down. For just ten minutes I experienced a little haven of a prayer corner under my umbrella; and God's gentleness in the face of our comical human failures. Truly, it's so much more than the prayer item at hand, or how perfectly we execute it. God uses this to teach us, how to grow in understanding Him and trusting Him, how to experience joy in obedience and peacefulness in His presence.
So 2020 has officially begun...and everyone who was born before the 2000's is silently feeling terribly old. *raises hand*
There's a pretty daily planner with a marbled cover on my desk--I'd been wanting one from this brand for years; this year was the first time the price wasn't ridiculously high. That has helped anchor me to reality, to make 2020 sink in. Call me superficial, but there is a considerable amount of satisfaction you can get from nice stationery, especially if you're using said stationery everyday first thing in the mornings!
thoughts on 2019:
2019 was finally--finally--a less stressful year for me. I was starting to get the hang of my different jobs, picking myself up after the crushing and mildly traumatic sink-or-swim phase that came with starting every new job. Learning to not care so much about what people thought about me and just focus on faithfully doing my job well, humbly accepting that I was not good at it and had much to learn. Conscientiously working on the bad and unhealthy coping mechanisms I'd become aware of. Learning to find refreshing and encouragement in serving, and to have healthier perspectives and mindsets towards people and problems. To see God's bigger picture, even when it--usually--went against the grain of my comfort/convenience/ideal of what things should be like.
Having said that, there are still many things I'd like to grow away from, looking forward to 2020. Yes, I've gone through Donald Whitney's 10 Questions! (a little tradition I've started for transitioning to a new year) I also had some important experiences and realizations over the end of the year, which made me more thoughtful about relationships and interactions, and motivated to be more purposeful about them this year.
In 2020 I want to:
--be more active and intentional in cultivating meaningful friendships and spending quality time= having meaningful conversations.
I'm very good at small talk. Too good. I want to pursue conversations which matter, conversations which bring your friendship to a new level and hopefully encourage growth in each other as well. To talk about what matters. I've had a similar such resolution before I imagine, but it's been getting more specific over the years. How exactly do you pursue meaningful and strong friendships? I've been slowly discovering that, I believe. Coming a step close each year. Wishing I'd started thinking about this earlier, of course, but all in good time.
Related to this, also a resolution to--don't laugh--not talk too much. I'm just as scared of awkward pauses as anyone. So that means that I often jump to fill the gaps, leaping from one lead to another, and with quieter people who don't talk easily, I end up talking incessantly for the sake of keeping the conversation going.
Listen more. Learn to ask people what they think, listen, instead of jumping in to talk or feeling like I need to give advice/my take immediately. This is something I learnt from teaching Sunday School, but funnily enough I hadn't thought about applying it with adults, in my friendships.
--to grow in prayer. Now, this has been popping up with embarrassing regularity on all my new year's resolutions. Embarrassing because it shows how the only consistency in my prayer life so far has been inconsistency. Now and then I hit a good streak, and feel pleased, only to break down all the good habits over a holiday or when something new pops up to make me busy. It's discouraging, but it also keeps me from becoming complacent. It just shows me how unreliable discipline and self-control are, as tempting as it may seem to see them as the solution.
I thought carefully about this, how I could really make some change in this area, and felt that there were some things I had never given thought to, which would help me to make this change. But more on that another day!
--not to let pride/social expectations/insecurities consume you. There is always the temptation to develop insecurities or try to justify so-called failures or lacks (eg. salary, future, ambitions, social life, lovelife etc) When you compare yourself with others, there are always things you feel you're missing out on. And since this is a difficult blow for our pride to accept, we tend to respond by slavishly chasing after those things, or finding reasons to justify it to ourselves so we can feel better. "If I hadn't chosen to serve more in church, I could have gotten better grades/a better job/that opportunity, but ah, you see my priorities were in the right place." I'm not being snarky here, neither am I dissing the fact that sacrifices like that can genuinely happen in a good and godly way. But it's a very real temptation, to cling to "legitimate" excuses which give us a sense of comfort that we didn't miss out--actually just another subtle form of blame-shifting, onto circumstances, onto people, onto God.
I'm being honest here.
I found myself, when I was feeling sorry for myself and wishing my dreams had worked out the way I wanted them to, tempted to blame it on those auditions/opportunities which I passed up, because they fell on Sundays.
I could have opened up a very different--more exciting!--road, and be in a very different place now. But it wasn't my fault, it was *God's*.
To be honest, humble, and not to live life in slavery to creating certain image of success/happiness/fulfilment.
--to be gentle. I realize that, though people often think I'm a loving/gentle person because of petty external things like care-packs, being sensitive/helpful etc. But much of this is often just a child-like desire to be kind, to make people happy. Not actual Christ-like love, the true type which endures. When it comes to the real, gritty work of dying to self, of living out love in a gory everyday way, I am anything but gentle and loving. Hardheartedness, pride, selfishness, they're all there.
It reminds me of a quote from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (truly an amazing book if you ever have the patience and courage to embark on it) "A true act of love, on the other hand, requires hard work and patience, and for some, it is a whole way of life." A warning that love is not merely the pretty, pleasant externalities we tend to associate it with, which are easy to talk about and easy to perform, like buying someone a bouquet or saying "I love you." We should not measure how loving we are, or how great our love is, by how often or how well we can perform these things. Just as the monk in the novel realized that his professed love for mankind was an abstract, theoretical love that actually shied away from the tough, often unpleasant work of loving individuals: "I love mankind...but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular."
--*continue* learning to trust more. I thought it would get clearer, as it has been the past two years, but it's again reached a crossroads/ uncertainty. Having to learn to trust again, especially after expectations that things would start to sort themselves out and get clearer. Things which seemed to have been becoming clearer have led to (seeming) deadends, whether in relationships or career or just general life direction. It's been frustrating as I assumed that they would sort themselves out by now, to feel that I'm back at square one.
But it really goes to show that trust is something that we never stop needing to learn. We are so tempted to think that once we pass this current hurdle--once God gives us a job, or helps us reach that level of financial stability, or gives us certainty about our career paths, or the right person to marry, or when our children believe in Christ--we would have done with it. But it never stops. We are always anxiously trying to control our lives, to make sure they turn out well, to ensure we live comfortably and pleasantly. Being aware of this is in itself a learning point. At least, for me.
image by Annie Spratt from Unsplash
Recently I attended the annual combined youth camp that my church participates in with other Reformed churches from different countries. It is always a good chance to step outside of your comfort zone, broaden your horizons, be encouraged when sharing and hearing about the wider work of God across various churches, countries, and cultures.
This year, one of the speakers did a short series on Elijah--which just happened to be the same passage I had chosen to do with my Sunday School kids. Ah, I thought. I'm very familiar with this.
However, as we studied the passages in 1 Kings chp 17-19, I felt for the first time a personal connection with Elijah and what he went through. Elijah has one of the most exciting narratives in the Bible. It's the stuff of any epic action movie. A national crisis. An evil king egged on by a bloodthirsty evil queen. The one man fighting for what is right despite being the underdog, being hunted for his life. Multiple life-and-death situations. Incredible supernatural miracles in every chapter, and equally incredible courage that enabled Elijah to defy the king and queen, the entire idolatrous nation, and basically everything against him. Heck, Netflix be calling to make a series of this soon.
Naturally, though it made for a cool story, I never really connected with Elijah's character. His bravery-to-the-point-of-recklessness, incredible faith in God, macho toughness in the face of impossible odds, and general badassery (is that even a term?) made him seem like some swashbuckling superhero who had very little in common with someone ordinary like me. Come on, I struggled to have faith for my exam grades. Elijah had faith that God would rescue him from Jezebel when he was standing before her and surrounded by her guards.
So studying this passage again made me suddenly sensitive to the chronology of events, and the peculiar insight into Elijah's character which transformed him, hero though he be in so many aspects, into a human no different from us, who struggled with fears, lack of faith, and self-pity.
At the dramatic contest of Mt Carmel, Elijah was at his peak. God used him in the most fantastic and epic way imaginable, with all the spotlight on him, to prove that the God of Israel was real. He was outnumbered by the prophets of Baal, his life was in danger at every moment, and yet God's power coursed through him, in the miracle that he performed, and the fearlessness he displayed. This is the Elijah we remember, the tough guy who sneers at the prophets of Baal, the guy who isn't scared of Jezebel, the guy who calls down fire from Heaven.
One would have thought that after this amazing display of God's power over Baal, over man, Elijah's faith would be even stronger than before. However, after the contest at Mt Carmel concludes, we see Elijah fold to pieces almost instantly, after receiving Jezebel's death threat in chp 19. Like any of us, despite the obvious proof of God's power which he had just witnessed--just conducted--he fell to the fear of man. Terror gripped him. All of a sudden, he did not believe that God could protect him now, when God had protected him all along. He turned to his own devices and fled, following what his scared human reasoning told him was the smart thing to do: "Elijah was afraid and ran for his life." He ran from his fears, trying to deal with them as he thought best, overwhelmed by the humanly impossible odds against him.
So often we too, after God answers our prayers, or demonstrates His power in our lives, fail to grow in faith, and instead fall again so easily into the pit of our fears--fear of what we can't control; fear of man; but ultimately, fear that God is not good, that we cannot rely on God to protect and provide for us. He was clearly disappointed that even after the miracle they had witnessed at Carmel, the Israelites were still too cowardly to come to his support, and that the victory God had given him at Carmel was not going to work out as he had expected, the turning point for Israel to recognize their sin and repent immediately. Elijah had put his hope in man instead of God. Now he was overwhelmed--with fear of Jezebel, and disappointment in the Israelites. A crushing sense of failure and disillusionment, probably bitterness as well, added to the fear of being killed.
It seems so obvious in Elijah's case, that the God Who sent ravens to feed him, Who raised the widow's son from the dead, Who kept him safe from Jezebel all these years, Who sent blazing fire down from heaven, would definitely be able to protect him. But it doesn't seem so obvious to us, blinded by our fears, in our own situations we face today.
When Elijah collapsed in the wilderness, unable to go any further on his own, at his wit's end, at the limit of his own human devices, he fell into despair and depression. Wallowing in self-pity and hopelessness, he turned suicidal, questioned the meaning of his life, and told God he couldn't take any more. "He came to a broom tree, sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. 'I have had enough, Lord,' he said, 'Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.' "
When was the last time we felt this way?
Suddenly I saw myself in Elijah.
What I love most is how God responded at this point. God had let him try his own solutions, God had waited till Elijah realized it was no use, and when Elijah gave up in despair and wished to die, God stepped in.
Without rebuking him for his lack of faith. Without scolding him for his ungratefulness or short-sightedness. "I just used you so powerfully at Mt Carmel, did you get amnesia already? Do you think, if I sent fire down from heaven at your request, I can't rescue you from Jezebel? As ifffffff"
God knew Elijah's fears and struggles, and He had compassion on him. He first of all cared for his physical needs, letting him sleep soundly, sending him food and water, all of which Elijah had neglected in his fear-crazed escape plan (and which clearly also contributed to his emotional and psychological collapse.)
After Elijah had rested, been fed, hydrated, God spoke to him. Gently. God asked him simply, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" One question, to make him stop in his tracks, to think and examine his motivations.
Elijah hadn't gotten over his self-pity yet. He ranted to God about his loneliness and suffering and generally had a good bawl that also managed to be as paegro as he dared.
And still, God didn't scold him, God didn't tell him off for being needy or weak or faithless.
God simply told him, feel My presence.
After the dramatic demonstrations of power and strength, Elijah was shaken, yet reminded that God, Who could do all this, was nevertheless was not just the fire on Mt Carmel, some impersonal supernatural power like The Force.
God was in the gentle whisper after all that, the still small voice. Personal. Compassionate. And once again, without telling him off, God asked him again to examine himself. "What are you dong here, Elijah?"
Still clinging defensively to his rant, Elijah delivered it again, weakly.
And God's response was to give him clear directions which reinforced the meaning for his life which he had been looking for. You are important to Me. I have important work for you to do, which will affect not only the nation of Israel but even the neighbouring pagan nations as well. You will anoint kings, directly subverting the power of Ahab and Jezebel from within and without.
In addition to that, God acknowledged his weariness, and comforted him--God told him He had already chosen and prepared a successor. Retirement was in sight, when Elijah had thought that it would never end. And finally, God reminded him-so gently!--that he was not alone. He might have suffered, but all God's true people were making the same, often difficult decisions, to stay faithful in each day when surrounded by an ungodly and idolatrous culture. In Elijah's (very) limited perspective, everything seemed hopeless, his efforts seemed pointless, and his life meaningless. But in God's plan, as we can clearly see when we read these chapters, it was anything but so. In fact, at the point when Elijah felt he couldn't go on anymore, God had already prepared his "exit strategy."
God knew him, on a deeply personal, deeply compassionate and loving way. God knew his fears and weariness and struggles, and God did not resent him for them or punish him for them, even when he behaved foolishly or weakly. God was not a relentless taskmaster who didn't care what the emotional state of this tool was as long as it got His job done. Far from it. God was gentle with Elijah at his lowest, most broken point--a great man, but still a man like us.
to be continued
image by Bryan Minear from Unsplash
My pastor preached a sermon the other day which helped me rethink the way we see coming to church every Sunday.
Let's face it. Eventually, for any good Christian attending church regularly, we can't help much of it becoming routine. Like how you hit the gym every Tuesday or visit your grandparents, or water your plants. We go through the motions of church every Sunday, the process of events becoming mind-numbingly familiar.
What's the main, ultimate purpose in going to church? We go to church to worship God. No one would disagree with that, I presume. And worshipping God, however that practically translates to you--regardless of whether you sit among the congregation, are in the pulpit, in the AV room, in the worship team, or ushering outside--is not a passive action.
When we gather to worship God in church, we are neither performers or passive spectators.
We are all equally, actively worshipping God.
Sometimes it's easy to forget when you're involved in the worship service, in leading any of the events. I remember sitting in my seat as the sermon came to an end, feeling like a runner at the start line of a race. It must be an even greater temptation for pastors, for whom Sunday is their big day, where they present the sermon they've been working on the whole week. Or for those playing music, or teaching Bible study classes; we feel, like performers, that we're "running this."
But that's a mindset that makes it hard to worship. When we're most tempted to feel that everything depends on us and our ability, we're least aware of our need for God. And in the midst of all our busyness, we need to fight to remember this. How do we worship God on Sunday? Being busy helping others to worship Him is not a replacement. We need to seek to worship Him ourselves. This is something that, like glorifying God, we don't just accidentally drift into doing. This requires us to purposefully dedicate and prepare our hearts, to purposefully focus. We need to stop seeing ourselves as performers, being so acutely aware of the gaze of others, being so focused on getting this done successfully.
Sometimes, as someone who regularly sits in the congregation, it's easy to forget. When church is something that you're not involved in, that you simply turn up to every Sunday, we tend to develop a kind of passive spectatorship/entitled consumer attitude. As if it's a restaurant or hotel, or we're watching a movie. Was it entertaining enough, comfortable enough, impressive enough? We come expecting to be spoon-fed and served, without making more effort than it took to be there. We frown, purse our lips, shake our heads or nod, making notes, mentally reviewing, comparing, assessing. Three out of five stars. Could be more efficient. The ushers could smile more. The babies could be quieter. The air conditioning should be colder.
But no. In God's eyes, just as each one of us is individually His child, each one of us is there to worship Him. And that is something that requires our individual response and involvement.
We need to pray--not for smoother, more impressive, more well-run Sundays--but for the Spirit to move hearts, to plant repentance in us, to enable us to come before God and truly worship Him with the humble and quiet hearts, regardless of whether we're sitting in the congregation, or in front of everyone.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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