Psalm 86 verse 11 has a simple but intriguing phrase: Unite my heart to fear your name.
Everything in me resonated with that line when I read it--YES.
Our hearts are complex.
Despite all those cute Awkward Yeti Brain and Heart comics that paint those two organs of ours in a oversimplified, basically oppositional relationship, our hearts are pretty complex just on their own.
We know--or we should know--that our words and actions reflect what is already present in our heart, and that our hearts are the root of whatever behavioural problems or issues we're trying to solve. Our hearts should be what we're addressing in our struggle with sin. The renewal of our hearts is one aspect, and a very significant one, of our sanctification as Christians; in conjunction with the other, equally significant aspect: that of concrete, active decisions to resist sin, which we make every day.
This is basically the jist of that post written more than a year ago (phew.) Now, though, I want to look at another perspective on the relationship between our hearts and our mouths.
Take a look at Psalm 39. I remember being astounded the first time I read this psalm--it was so direct, so straightforward, so honestly personal, I felt that if I looked up I would see the Psalmist materializing in front of me. Heck, I could even hear myself saying these words (though I would probably have phrased everything just a bit less elegantly...)
The heart-mouth relationship is a two-way road. Just as our hearts affect what comes of our mouths, what comes out of our mouths can also affect our hearts. The Psalmist learnt not to encourage the anger and bitterness in his heart by letting his tongue run away expressing it. His response when his heart was 'hot within me' was to 'guard my ways, lest I sin with my tongue.' Obviously, this didn't resolve his anger within--but it was valuable for something else: not exacerbating it. The result? The 'fire burned' still within, yes; but ultimately, it made him turn to God in frustration, where there was hope for a true resolution:
'Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days,
That I may know how frail I am...
...Certainly every man at his best state is but a vapor.
And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You;
Deliver me from all my transgressions...'
If I had had the insight to discern it, I could have learnt this from personal experience. After all, if you're struggling to forgive someone, obviously it won't help if you let all these emotions blast-- it tempts you to feel more aggrieved, to downplay your own wrong, and encourages you in your bitterness, pride, anger, unforgivingness.
If the person you're dumping all these grimy emotions on sympathizes with you, well, how nice for our fallen nature--we already were 100% sure we were in the right; now we're 200% sure. If they don't, you're very likely going to feel even more defensive and aggrieved because they downplay or disregard your feelings. Either way, it doesn't seem a very promising move towards forgiveness and restoration. It's running a nice bathtub for you to wallow in self-pity. And preparing a nice safe equipped with dehumidifiers and a nest of cotton wool for you to carefully cherish your grudge in.
Be careful. Our hearts, after all, are complex. Maybe we have sincere desires to forgive, to be humble, to resist bitterness. But those aren't going to be the only emotions in our messed up hearts.
Those complaining, selfish, arrogant, bitter (and the list goes on, unfortunately) words express what's in our hearts. And they also exacerbate the feelings they stem from.
Of course, we must qualify, as any statement nowadays--especially on the internet--must in order to avoid being grossly misinterpreted, misquoted, and misunderstood. (and sometimes it still happens anyway, but at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you did your best.) Talking, especially in times of emotional crisis, is important.
Of course. I would be the last person who dares to question that, for the unpleasant reason that I often talk too much too fast (they tend to come together.) It's the way we talk, how much we talk, maybe even who we talk to, depending on the context--all highly subjective details that I won't even attempt to address. At any rate, I am not about to bother arguing for something fairly obvious.
Talking about our emotions is important, yes. A not so popular aspect of that, however, is talking about our emotions to the person who evoked them. We're cowards at heart, all of us. If only our problems could be solved by us talking about them to third party sympathizers who are comfortably distanced from the person we're talking about, and we're insured against negative consequences. (yoohoo,Youtube comments.) Actually, a surprising amount of of people problems could be resolved if we were brave and humble enough to honestly confront the person who's causing us unhappiness--confess our own wrong--gently tell them of theirs--and work together for reconciliation. That is, after we've asked God to help us with our complex hearts. To genuinely love and care for the person. To keep our motivations from self-pity and arrogance and just basically being nasty and obnoxious. After all, if prayer reflects our relationships with people, being able to pray for the person who offended you is a good sign that you've made the first move away from prideful self-centeredness, towards forgiveness and humility.
May our hearts be united in the right desires; in humility and a desire to please God.
'...And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You;
Deliver me from all my transgressions.'
Doing Search the Scriptures on the Lord's Prayer made me see prayer in a different perspective--as a mirror.
Really? you think silently at this point. I think she's running out of ideas for this blog.
It isn't as absurd as it may sound, I promise. After all, the type of relationship we have with someone, for example, determines how many times a week we call them--why we call them--what we talk about when we call them--how long our calls are--and even what sort of language we use when we call them. Understandably, then, examining how we pray can function as a mirror that reflects the state of our relationship; either with God, when we pray to Him, or with others, when we pray about them. Our relationship with God is many-faceted, like a--alright, I needn't complete the simile. We relate to Him as children, dependents/creatures, and sinners/debtors, to name the first few that come to my mind. Each facet of our relationship with Him is important, and how we pray should reflect that. In other words, you could say this is the theology behind the ACTS prayer mnemonic. (yes, it took me so many years to see this) Without the corresponding prayer for these different facets, our relationship with Him is in danger of being imbalanced. As children, our prayer should include love, sharing, confiding, asking. As His creatures and dependents, gratitude, praise, and acknowledgement of our need for Him. As sinners and His debtors, confession and repentance...and so on, as you can go into detail somewhere else.
Seeing prayer as a mirror of our relationship with others, however, is a bit more messy and unsettling. That's what happened when I applied this perspective to the different people I was praying for (and the different struggles I had in praying for them--umm please help her with whatever upcoming exams she's going to have...she's having exams right?...ohh I forgot to pray for him AGAIN...err...can I skip this one...I'll pray for that tomorrow...GOD MAKE THIS PERSON STOP BEING SO ANNOYING...)
It helped me to see that I should be praying for the opportunity to get to know this person better.
That the fact I wasn't praying for someone, or kept postponing to, reflected the unacknowledged strain in our relationship.
To realize that surprisingly, even for people I cared deeply about, it was easy to neglect praying for them, revealing in me an underlying carelessness about their spiritual conditions.
And that the first step in dealing with difficult or unlovable people is always to pray for them--instead of conveniently pushing them from my mind, or praying only that God would take away the challenge they presented in my life.
Take a moment to think about your last interaction with someone and see if how you prayed for them--or your failure to do so--affirms the assumed status of your relationship. Chances are they may not correspond as you'd expect. Seeing this disparity has helped me be more aware and critical of my relationships with the people I'm praying for, rocking me in my otherwise comfortable complacency; it's challenged me to pray more honestly, accurately, and humbly.
Psalm 119: 71 --- 'It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.'
There will be times when you read this verse, and wonder what it means.
At other times it will be too painful.
Sadness is a fairly common part of everyday life, as Inside Out might have taught you. Grief, however, is different. It is not simply, like sadness, the 'opposite of happiness'. It is a complicated and extended process of emotional suffering which has a permanent effect on you. It's like an earthquake hitting a city, making your tallest skyscrapers and biggest buildings--everything that made you complacent, assured, everything that seemed so immovable and permanent to you--collapse. It negates roadmaps and street signs--what previously made perfect sense to you--and drastically changes your needs. Having faulty traffic lights fixed is suddenly not important anymore. Food, medical attention, a roof over your head--you just need the basic necessities to survive.
The process of healing, too, is like having to rebuild your demolished city--without being able to dispose of all the rubble. It remains as a foundation for the new buildings, always there as a humbling reminder of fragility, pain, and weakness--in the past, and present.
I've observed such humbling in certain people who experienced this sort of suffering. They have less assumptions. Are simpler. Kinder. Gentler. More empathetic. Less judgemental. It has truly brought them closer to Christ--closer to understanding Him--closer to being like Him. This is what Jesus is like; humble in His obedience, in His love, and in serving. He suffered too, in His time here, which is why we know He understands, and why He is so patient and gentle with us in our weaknesses. Such gentleness and empathy is only possible through humility. We can only care for others when we stop caring so much for ourselves. We can best appreciate their strengths when we have no delusions or pretensions on our own, when we aren't instinctively comparing ourselves. We can only help them discern their weaknesses when we're not busy trying to deny our own.
Watching them has taught me to have more hope and faith in suffering and in God's ability to let changes that may feel so painful to work such wonders, even in me. Perhaps the pain will never quite go away, just as earthquake prone zones experience recurring tremors. The rebuilding will take time, may be slow and constantly being set back. Sometimes that site was so badly devastated, you can never quite build something as momentous there again. But the rubble that looks so ugly, that is such a sobering reminder to you of how fragile all these buildings are, how much wreckage there once was here, is also hope in its own way. If another earthquake--and you flinch at the thought--should come and devastate this new city, you have the comfort of knowing that though you still can't withstand it, still can't predict when it will hit, you have hope of surviving and recovering again. That your first experience has equipped you to be a little--even if just a little--more able to deal with a second.
In other words, this city may not be earthquake proof, but it is proof that earthquakes are not the end.
2 Timothy 2: 11-13.
For if we died with Him,
--to our sins, just as He died for our sins--
We shall also endure with Him.
If we endure,
--temptation and trials, just as He endured temptations and trials for us--
We shall also reign with Him.
If we deny Him,
--the place belonging to Him in our hearts and lives--
He also will deny us
--the place we were made for and intended for, in His heart and home.
If we are faithless,
--when we fail our promises, when our love cools, when we don't trust Him as He deserves--
He remains faithful--He cannot deny Himself.
For the longest time I could not understand 2 Timothy 2: 11-13. What was the logical progression between the correlative equations of the first three, and the seeming inconsistency of the last couplet?
Our relationship with Christ may seem like an equation on several levels. A promise of glory and greater good through suffering patiently endured, a promise of purity and perfection through purposeful overcoming of sin, as depicted in these verses. In our effort to motivate ourselves we reduce our relationship with Christ into a simplistic equation. If I want that, I have to do this.
But love is not an equation, and Christ's love for us is definitely not an equation. He loved us while we were still sinners, when there was no sign of us ever being worthy of that love. He loved us knowing that His love and His grace would have to be what changed us, that the force behind this relationship would have to be 100% His--not the '50-50' relationship that seems so ideal to us. We were suckers in more sense than one--parasitical, needy; 'high-maintenance' friends in other words.
And still, He loved.
His call to put off sin, to endure, to courageously accept, is a calling that is integral to His relationship to us as a Saviour--just as mentorship is an intrinsic aspect of your relationship with a coach or parent. He calls us away from what He came to save us from, and towards what He embodies.
But ultimately, Love is what characterizes and created this relationship, what sustains it--His love.
His love is what transforms 2 Timothy 2: 11-13 from a series of equations to a description of a relationship.
His love is an aspect of His character and not an evaluation of our worthiness.
And sometimes, that is all that gets me through the day, all that gives me hope and courage for living; for living with myself, for living with others, for living in this messed up and terribly painful world, a world and its people desperately in need of perfection.
Your hand, at some point in life--hopefully--has been a guiding hand to someone.
Definitely if there are children in your life. Or young (perhaps I should say, younger) believers who look up to you as a mentor.
Reading Matthew 18:1-10 with Search the Scriptures made me see, for the first time, that our attitude and duty towards young children are similar to those towards young believers. In a sense, you could call them mentoring relationships--friendship based on a tacit understanding that one learns and is guided by the other. Friendships with a great capability for mostly one-sided influence.
How loving Christ's words are in this chapter, and how piercingly aware of the condescension, pride, and carelessness that can warp such mentoring relationships, making them more destructive than nurturing.
Studying Christ's words was a reminder to:
1. Be humble in accepting, appreciating, and learning from them (v 4-5, 10)
Humbly learn from them--the childlike spirit of trustfulness, which is so easily patronised as naivety, is really something incredibly rare, and a great honour to have, in contrast to the cynicism that being street-smart cultivates.
Don't abuse or despise it. No matter how silly it is, don't make them feel foolish for being confiding. No matter how trivial their secret is--or how great a joke it would make--don't betray their trust, or treat it lightly.
(I'm still learning this! I'm afraid my sense of humour is not always very helpful...)
For younger believers--don't feel supercilious over their eagerness, energy, and exuberance. Rejoice with them! And instead of seeing it as an instance of their immaturity, (as we generally do with eager-beavers in any other field) humbly recognize it as a reminder of how far you have fallen away from your first love.
And these are just two of the most obvious areas.
2. Give them respect. See them as individuals. (v10; note the repetition of 'one of' in v 5 and 10!)
As a mentor, respect may not be the first thing you think of giving to your--how shall I say this? mentoree?
And all the more so, we mustn't neglect it.
This could be something as simple as listening, a lesson that could take a whole lifetime to learn.
In William Deresiewicz's book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, he describes what he learnt from reading Mansfield Park--the importance of listening in a friendship:
"Austen...knew that our stories are what make us human, and that listening to someone else's stories--entering into their feelings, validating their experiences--is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity, the sweetest form of usefulness."
This, in my experience of working with children, is entirely and wholly true. You'd be surprised; kids don't actually want you to entertain them so much as they want you just to listen to them. Not just with the engrossed grown-up's spasmodic 'Umm' and 'Really?' but with the same respect, interest, and engagement you would give to another adult.
Even if you're dying to laugh.
3. Be purposeful in loving, guiding, and caring for them. Take your mentorship and relationship with them seriously, just as you would take serving the Lord in more glamorous or 'grown-up' ways. (v 5) You may only have these three kids to teach every Sunday, or that one teenager who confides in you. You are no less significant (and probably more) to them, than if you had twenty.
And as Christ so clearly warns, be careful we do not cause them to stumble. (v 6) As teachers, mentors, and friends, we have been given a great trust.
I need to keep in mind how receptive children are to your approval and criticism, once you have won their love and friendship. A careless comment or impatient remark can make a much bigger impact than you would think on a child who loves and looks up to you.
Similarly, in your relationship to a younger Christian. Be especially careful of imposing your opinions! Having--sadly--done this before with children, I daren't think of the consequences this could have on a spiritual level.
Oh dear, how depressing this is! someone may be saying at this point. All these warnings, as if I needed any more to think and worry about, when I'm just struggling with the time and effort costs of friendship!
Yes, we fall short most of the time. We make mistakes.
But as Jerry and Mary White's book, To Be a Friend, (a helpful and insightful guide on friendship!) notes,
'We can only do this when our lives are being transformed by God.'
And as another comfort to us discouraged souls--God intends friendship to be a two-way blessing.
Even mentoring friendships.
'We gain and we give. We gain what we do not expect or deserve. We give what cannot be bought.'
(To Be a Friend, by Jerry and Mary White)
Virtual communication has superseded verbal communication today, in a similar way to how communicating with God has evolved.
We talk about God more than we talk to Him. Technology gives us access to many good articles, websites, and e-sources to help us in our relationship with Him. Our lack of time, however, makes it easier for us to focus on these rather than on the relationship itself. After all--and I'm guilty of this!--it only takes so long to read an article. Five minutes or less is enough for the average article nowadays. In one click and a few rapid scrolls we can get an espresso shot of insight and wisdom, and feel that we've 'done something about our spiritual life' for the day. As a healthy marriage requires time with each other, rather than individual studies of even the most helpful marriage counselling books, we need to change this mentality.
(On a side note--yes, I'm aware how ironical this blog post is!)
One of the most important and most neglected ways to 'grow spiritually' is prayer.
In today's fast-paced lifestyle, the mere idea of sitting still, keeping your eyes closed, or your hands clasped, seems agonizingly stagnant and static. Even though there are so many ways we can incorporate prayer into our schedule; on the treadmill, on the road, on the bus, (amen to that!) in the kitchen, over the sink...all the same, prayer is something most of us know we regularly neglect everyday.
Ironically, one of the biggest reasons for this neglect--besides the delusion that it requires a solid block of unfettered time where we can sit in perfect hermit-like isolation, cool and cross-legged a la a yoga advertisement--is that there are so many things to pray about. It overwhelms us, especially when we feel we've only got five minutes to pray.
How can we possibly squeeze everything into five minutes?? We can't! Let's just avoid the whole issue and settle for a brief superficial Dear Lord, thank You for everything please help me to do everything I have to do today and keep me close to You Amen.
If we had an empty morning to ourselves, preferably on an isolated mountain top with lots of green and perhaps a waterfall or two in the background, ah, then we could really pray, we tell ourselves.
But since we don't--and it seems quite likely we never will--we need to have a sense of structure in our prayer.
Don't misunderstand me.
Prayer should be, ideally, spontaneous and natural and uninhibited. When someone first suggested that I keep a prayer schedule, I was outraged. Perhaps with an instinctive knowledge of my go-getter, list-maker mentality, it seemed to me like a death blow to the ideal of prayer itself. Mechanized, automated, so horribly and meaninglessly structured. You might as well tell me to plan how to start loving someone. I had a very Dickensian reaction to this seemingly Gradgrindian proposal.
But having started from that extreme, I've since changed my mind. In the constant struggle to maintain prayer in the 21st century lifestyle, I feel that a schedule of some sort is important in making any progress, or enabling any perseverance in prayer.
Based on your context, lifestyle, personality, and even prayer items, your prayer schedule will, and should, vary. Some people have incredibly organized and precise schedules that specify what day, what topic, what particular request. Others have a much more flexible approach, more like a basic format of organization. Wary of my personality's bent, I'm trying to keep to this, encouraging prayer time to remain spontaneous and natural instead of becoming a list of boxes to be ticked.
Even at such a simple level, this has helped me so much, I would like to share it here. It may be a very obvious idea to some of you, probably more mature Christians who have experience and wisdom. But, remembering how only a few years ago this was something I had to learn through sheer trial and error (I've been through both extremes of the hyper-organized and the hyper-flexible approach to prayer), I hope it will be helpful to some, at least, who want to do something about prayer but don't know how, short of a major restructuring of their lives. (and if you don't have time to pray as much or as well as you would like, I'm guessing you probably don't have the time for that either.)
My prayer journal is a notebook I throw into my schoolbag on weekdays, and reinstall on my shelf on the weekend. It undergoes quite a lot of wear and tear from being fished out and chucked back so many times on the bus, on the way to classes. (Note to self: invest in a hardier notebook, or else a real leather book cover for protection. From the current state of my prayer journal I'm soon going to have to deal with bits of flaking grey synthetic leather. Ugh.) You could always do a high-tech equivalent on your phone, I'm sure--but keep in mind how easy it is to get distracted by social media notifications, emails, or texts.
Every now and then--annually at the least, or else whenever I feel it's no longer relevant--I take time to reorganize my prayer schedule.
There are several items that don't change: Myself. Family. My church. Friends. Specific people I'm praying for. Salvation for certain people. Missionaries, leaders, world events.
Recently I've taken to organizing them a little differently, into Salvation (unbelievers), Spiritual Life (Christians), Prayer Requests (people I'm praying for), Me--in the roles and life You've given me, and as Your child. There is a special one for thanksgiving as well, to remember answered prayer.
You may not use the same format, of course. I suggest though, the simpler the better, especially when you first start.
What I like about this method is that you choose whatever category you feel most drawn to pray for that day--it formats all those prayer items into manageable 'servings', so you don't feel overwhelmed, or guilty for forgetting to pray for that person you said you would. (aha! we've all been there, haven't we?) Most of all, it gives you what I call 'largeness of mind' (aka mental space) which is more tied up with heart space (the 'largeness of heart' that the Bible often talks about) than we often realize. When our minds are full of what we haven't done and what we need to do, we feel overwhelmed and unable to care for anything or anyone beyond our immediate circumstances. I don't even have time to pray for the salvation of my family, or for my spiritual life. Let alone Syrian refugees or that lonely girl people whisper about. Mentally, we feel harassed and frustrated and overwhelmed--and our hearts close up simultaneously...
And God, knowing this, calls us to lay our burdens on Him--through prayer. Ironically, what a vicious cycle we sometimes make of this...
Psalm 119:32 ...For You shall enlarge my heart.
As a second gen Christian, I think I can say I've had a personal experience of the pitfalls kids from Christian homes face, or what I would term the spiritual dangers of being 'Christianized'.
Having said that, mine was even the type of church where conversion and baptism were taken very seriously--no Sinner's Prayer magic formula you could say when you were seven, or post-camp spiritual high.
And yet, after years of Sunday School and church, obeying your parents, praying (and having a legitimate, if somewhat shallow relationship with God), behaving kindly, memorizing Bible verses...the lines blur. To yourself, more than to others. You aren't actually a Christian, but you're very good at looking like one.
I'm not saying that growing up in a Christian home inevitably leads to hypocrisy, though it certainly is a possibility. But I believe that more often, the problem isn't sincerity or hypocrisy. You do believe, you do accept, on the same simple level you had since childhood. To make it more complicated, you do actually want it to be more than just that; you (vaguely) want to 'be a real Christian.'
Meanwhile, you continue to do all the right things and after the hundredth gospel service you stop thinking of yourself when the pastor reaches the application at the end. Oh yeah, I know that stuff.
You've been Christianized.
First big danger of being Christianized: It stops you from seeing your sin, and from recognizing that you need to be saved from it. Especially for kids who are born with a sort of instinctive good nature/high tolerance, or have been blessed with lives that contain comparatively little conflict to challenge them, a Christian upbringing or at least obedience to Christian parents can be an additional stumbling block in recognizing your sin, and your urgent need for help. It creates a deceptive facade that tricks you as well as others--until something happens to shake the mask off. Like Nellie's description of Catherine's temper in Wuthering Heights, gunpowder doesn't explode if fire is kept away from it, but it is still gunpowder nonetheless; only waiting to be set off. Being Christianized is like another layer of sand hiding the gunpowder of sin in our souls.
All those times when people tell you how well behaved you are, 'how well you've turned out.' (another reason for my deep-rooted dislike of that phrase; as if parents can follow a formula and produce model children!) Your good kid image and all those years in church, all the Bible verses and theology you can spout, don't make you more of a Christian than the visitor who doesn't know who Abraham is. A sinner who has heard the Gospel a million times is still--a sinner. Having medicine in your home doesn't mean you're not sick.
I've shared before in my testimony how this 'good kid blindfold' snared me for years; I simply could not say with honest conviction, I have sinned. The words rang hollow even in my own ears. I quote Ray Hartsfield, I think for the second time on this blog: 'Every man faces a day when guilt transforms from an abstract concept to a soul-crippling infection.'
Being Christianized often makes that transformation harder.
A second big danger of being Christianized: failing to differentiate between what applies to Christians and what applies to nonbelievers; and getting frustrated, and stumbled, as result.
For every sort of society, conformity gets you acceptance. Speak the way we do. Join in our activities. Don't do that--do this--and you'll be one of us.
However, the church is not a society. Should not be a society. Unbelievers are accepted with love into the church family, but to be 'one of us' in the sense of one of Christ's children, a Christian--mere conformity isn't enough. Should not be enough.
There are so many passages in the Bible that become frighteningly, disturbingly works/appearance-oriented once we take them out of the context of the professing Christians they're addressed to, and plop them down in sweeping application to the whole Bible study group--whether you're seeking, whether you're professing, whether you're just sitting in this room because your parents brought you along, THOU SHALL EVANGELIZE TO THY NON-CHRISTIAN FRIENDS because that's what the Bible calls Christians to do. (for example)
No issue with that. But perhaps you need to look at your class and see each one as having an individual relationship with God, varying from one to another, even if you've had the same class for the last three years. What kind of ambassador has never actually been in the country they profess to represent, and aren't even citizens?
Professing Christians have a personal relationship and commitment as their impetus to obey such commands in the Bible, instead of the Christianized's sincere but vague sense that this is right and everyone approves of it. Doing so only further Christianizes yourself, distancing yourself from the real thing because you deceptively seem to be 'doing it all already.' The kids who have been faithfully coming to Sunday School, the kids who text you things like 'I'm praying for you' and 'Trust God', but whose faith doesn't go deeper than obedient, dutiful, or even sincere--these kids are most in danger from the opiate of cultural conformity; conformity to the culture of the church.
And then, when they've been doing, and doing, and doing--dutifully, sincerely, patiently doing--there seems to be so much to do, when there's so little you get in return; and after a while, you get burnt out. Frustrated. What's the point of doing all this?
What's the point, indeed, when it's being done for its own sake and nothing more?
A third big danger of being Christianized--and this also applies to second gen Christians like myself, even after coming to a personal conversion: it's easy to mistake family culture issues for moral issues.
Let's have a very, very simple example, one that won't be sensitive or misleading to (almost) anyone. (sigh)
When I was really small, and my church was really small, and almost all the children in the church at that point were really small, we were all homeschooled--that is, our parents didn't send us to kindergartens. So, without my mom or dad telling me anything on this, I assumed in my small mind that being a Christian meant you were homeschooled. (I'm aware there are people who do hold this assumption, but I think most of the people reading this wouldn't think so.) And so when another small friend told me very proudly that he was going to go to Primary 1, I was aghast. 'You mean you're not going to come to church anymore??'
Family culture. Not a moral issue.
How one family decides to keep the Sabbath in practical and specific detail, obviously differs from another, based on background, lifestyle, even economic differences. One family, maybe, tries not to buy things on Sunday. But another eats out so Mom can get a much-needed rest from cooking, and they have time to fellowship with others. I was brought up keeping Sunday as a day where we don't touch homework (depending on what age you are, the idea will produce either a cheer or a groan). That, though, is an aspect of my family culture, and doesn't make us more righteous than another Christian family who does do homework on Sundays. But when you've grown up doing something, and the people around you take it for granted as well, it becomes too easy to make something small like this into a moral issue when we meet people who don't do what we do. Merely because we're so used to it, it seems weird that other people aren't. And that, obviously, is a bad reason.
I was reluctant to include the second example of keeping the Sabbath, above, because I'm aware what a sensitive topic it can be to some people, not just between families in the same church, but between churches as well. You may not agree with my classification of keeping the Sabbath under family culture, and perhaps it isn't, in your context; (maybe it comes up in the top five on your church covenant) but this definitely applies to many things. Things which we need to wake up and see for what they are: just things we're used to doing--or not doing--or doing in a certain way--and don't necessarily reflect a moral judgement on others who are different.
I don't pretend to be an expert on this. What little I've written is simply based on my personal experience and having watched others like myself struggle with the same issues. That, along with conviction that these are real concerns, is all. No masters in psychology or theology. No parenting or counselling experience either. Perhaps I shouldn't have written quite so much--thrown in a few more qualifications or disclaimers...
But having said so much, I want to qualify what may otherwise seem to some people as a rant against the hypocrisy, external-oriented if subversive pressure that Christian family culture imposes on nonChristian children (observe the vocabulary of literary analysis essays! The combination just lacks ideology, sexually repressed, and bourgeois.)
There are many, many benefits in growing up in a Christian family. So much so that they more than balance these few dangers listed here. I may have stumbled in a few small ways in my spiritual journey, but overall my Christian background has been something I am very grateful to God for, and to which I largely owe whatever little spiritual maturity I have. Perhaps I should--just to silence the mouths out there who might extrapolate--write a counterbalancing post on the blessings of being a second gen Christian, and all would be well...
Humour aside, it is simply a reminder to me that again, grace is everything. The best intentions, the 'most Christian' family background, aren't a formula to 'turn out' (ugghhh) scintillatingly spiritual Christians.
In the bleakest and bitterest hearts, God works. In the complaisant and yes, even the Christianized, God works too.
Recently, it is becoming increasingly difficult to write for this blog, as I struggle with my own sins and in keeping a good heart, much more than normal. As a wise friend once pointed out when I first started this blog, it holds me accountable for practicing what I preach. It makes hypocrisy a more explicit danger. I use explicit because it doesn't necessarily make it harder, or easier, to be hypocritical--it just makes it more obvious to others and yourself; both the danger of being so, and the guilt of having done so. Depending on how you look at this, this can be good, or bad--good because it forces you to be more aware--bad because it gives you an opportunity to do so without the ease of concealing it up afterwards.
I'm going to go with good. That's one good thing about a religion which many people think is synonymous with hypocrisy--the association makes you much more aware and sensitive to the inevitable lapses into hypocrisy that we all fall into, than one normally would otherwise.
Almost every time, before I hit the POST button, as I scroll through what I've typed, decide if that's the most appropriate Pin for this post, if there's an under representation of Asians on this blog's images--I wonder. How much of this all is just Christianese, a glib rearrangement of religious vocabulary that makes me seem wise and pious? If only I could write like C.S Lewis and Walter Wangerin but--that doesn't get us anywhere, or I wouldn't be writing this post; I'd be a respected name on a real printed book cover!
Hypocrisy is always with us, lurking on the fringes of our actions and words. I acknowledge that freely, because I see that everywhere around and inside of me. Hypocrisy flourishes when there is enough knowledge of what is actually good but no real commitment to pursue it.
In literature, Christianity often comes up as a device to explore the hypocrisy of man. At face value this is an unsparing condemnation of a religion. As life experience shows me, it is nothing more than another painful means to truth--to the depravity of man, in twisting something good into something worse, to human nature which hasn't changed a whit, even centuries later. How ugly it is. As Gene Edward Veith said: 'Cultures as such cannot be Christian--only individuals, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, can have faith in Christ. Sometimes a religion that becomes wholly intertwined with its culture becomes false and idolatrous, confusing cultural customs and institutions with spiritual truth.' (Reading Between the Lines)
But if normalized, institutionalized, cultural Christianity was the sore that bred such hypocrisy then--what is the sore of our modern society today?
Because we make a lot of noise about hypocrites and insincerity (check social media rants) does it mean we're necessarily more aware of it in ourselves than Brocklehurst and other unsavoury Victorian religious hypocrites in literature were? Unfortunately hypocrisy is not always in the form we best recognize it in.
I am thankful that my struggles help me realize how close I am, all the time, to becoming a hypocrite. I am thankful that although I feel terribly unsure every time I think of writing the weekly article--but how could I, so often clutching my sins to myself, dare to write about forgiveness and grace and repentance?--it is a reminder that I was no better then, on a 'spiritual high', than I am now; hopefully now with less temptation to be hypocritical.
Or perhaps more accurately, simply more aware of the grace I need. That I don't stand on my own feet, but lean on the shoulder of a Friend.
1 Corinthians 10:12
Yesterday the Sunday School syllabus I use for my little class covered the story of David and Bathsheba--one of those tricky Bible stories which can give Sunday School teachers headaches when they're preparing the lesson.
I had other qualms about the story, however--ones that had nothing to do with explaining the matter-of-fact Biblical phrase 'slept with', or why the bathing beauty was so aptly named Bathsheba, or what was the logic behind Old Testament bathrooms. ('But how come they bathed on the ROOF??' I'm supposed to research on that so next week I can produce a satisfactory answer for children who, like me, have grown up in the lofty heights of apartment blocks.)
We had been studying David's life, meandering through 1 and 2 Samuel with an accompanying finger in the Psalms, and so far the lessons had been clear, simple, and helpful. We discussed Saul's fatal decline, especially his initial slide into pride, jealousy, and self-reliance. We looked at David's youth--he wasn't much older than them when he was called in one day from his everyday chores, and his life changed forever in a splash of anointing oil. His trust in God, even when he was an outlaw running for his life, even when he was wronged. We talked about similar situations in our own lives and our natural reactions, our ongoing need for grace and help beyond ourselves; and I had the honour of hearing many touching or funny little insights, generously and honestly shared the way only children can.
All along, David had come through as a hero, an encouragement and an example of what a close and personal relationship with God was like, from youth to maturity, though adversity and prosperity. And I was happy, because--with Nehemiah making a close second--wasn't David my favourite Bible character?
Kids--David, the charming shepherd boy, the Goliath-episode hero, the brave and generous Robin Hood we were cheering for, was an adulterer and murderer.
I've often wondered. Every time I come across this passage--every time the preceding line 'A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba' jerks a remembrance that my favourite Psalm 51 emerged from this ugliness.
Of all the characters in the Bible, I have always imagined David as the one most emotionally in tune with God, if that's the best way to express it. After all, he was the 'man after God's own heart.' His passion and sensitivity and conviction ring resoundingly in the Psalms. Why this ugliness? Why did God let someone He loved so much, someone who loved Him so much, so fall away in a moment of weakness into lust and murder and inexcusable abuse of power? Didn't God realize what a terrible witness David's sin was, not just to his court and people, but centuries on--to scoffing cynics, to Christians who uncomfortably skip over those chapters, to kids who think of David as the Good Guy Giant Killer?
He knew. Of course He knew.
The ugliness of David's sins, all the uglier for being the one great blot on his otherwise golden name, established him firmly in the Bible for all time as what he was: a sinner.
All the gloss, all the pedestals, all the distancing, ruined by the one word Bathsheba.
David was handsome, smart, godly, brave. He killed giants and led armies. He was a skilled leader with a born genius for relating to people, balanced by principles and a rock-firm reliance on God. He was a king. He had the Holy Spirit. He was even a great musician. Basically it looked like David had everything he needed to be a Biblical role model and an overall winner at that.
But then along comes 2 Samuel 12 and busts all those misconceptions and distractions out of the window.
That is where the similarity begins, and we can start to see that the differences aren't half so impossibly unattainable as they seem.
David was a sinner, whom God changed and used. A sinner, whose talents God developed and blessed, so that each one became one facet of a powerfully influential and useful man, whose life and thoughts remain significant today, and whose relationship with God continues to inspire and encourage others.
But at heart, a sinner who desperately needed grace and forgiveness.
we need grace and forgiveness in our brokenness and ugliness.
We have talents, but they are nothing until we see them as what they are, and use them as they were meant.
We are as much--or as less--Biblical role model material, brilliant achiever material, or 'man-after-God's-own-heart' material, as David.
We aren't that different at all.
The same two basic components are in us all: man's sin, God's grace.
I have been writing and thinking a lot about making mistakes recently, probably because at 21 it's inevitable to confront what it means to be 'grown-up'--both to yourself, and to others.
There are times it feels that growing up is basically moving on from small silly mistakes that others punish you for, to big bad mistakes you punish yourself for. When you were little you were not scared of making mistakes--because everyone expected you to make mistakes, including yourself--so much as scared of being punished for it. You broke someone's toy when you were playing with it, so you stealthily hide it under the sofa when no one's looking, hoping they'll only find it after you've gone home.
Now that you are a Big Responsible Adult Who Gets Things Done Properly, however, you try so hard not to make any mistakes, not to slip up. You're not afraid of them finding the broken toy under the sofa, so much as you're afraid of having broken it in the first place.
I wrote before on worldly guilt and godly guilt, but I'm still struggling to come to terms with the role each plays in my life--always far too much of the first, far too little of the second. However, today I want to write on another aspect of mistakes, from a Christian's perspective, something I ought to have known long ago, but which somehow only came home to me recently through the process of, yes, making mistakes.
My violin strings snapped suddenly the other day, and I had to make a trip down to a very out-of-the-way-shop to get the replacements I wanted. It was such a long trip that I put it off for a while, until I realized my holidays were almost coming to an end, and I had better get it done. So I traveled all the way there, got lost as I expected I would, finally found the shop (hooray!) and came up to the big glass doors like a desert traveler approaching the oasis.
Only to see the small sign hanging from the locked doors: closed on Mondays.
I felt aghast, and then dumb.
I felt more than dumb, I felt incredibly stupid not to have thought of checking the website on their opening times and days. After traveling all the way here, spending all that time--??
What a mess.
There was a little lady inside the shop, peacefully sorting through some papers behind the locked glass doors. I thought of knocking on the door and asking her if I could come in, and then I thought of how obviously undeserving I was--I had no reason at all that she should accommodate me, the wrong was all on my side. No reason at all.
Full of wretchedness and self-reproach, I was about to slink away in utter disgrace; but she came over--maybe she heard me banging my head on the door. 'We're closed on Mondays, that's true. The cash register isn't working, so you can only pay by cash and I'm afraid I can't give you a receipt--but I can still sell you the strings if you want...'
I left feeling so thankful. So humbled and so happy.
That's grace for you.
It was still a stupid thing for me to have done (or rather, not to have done) but if I had done my research properly, bought what I needed with the typical sense of entitlement we unconsciously don when we walk in, plunk our money down and hold out our hand--I wouldn't have experienced that grateful, joyous humbling of undeserved grace; a reminder of when I first believed.
Mistakes can be opportunities for us to experience grace.
Granted, we're not often shown grace when we make mistakes. When we're careless. When we don't think about the consequences of our actions, how it affects others. We don't deserve to be shown grace, and that's the whole point--that's why grace, when it's extended to us, is so amazing.
Our mistakes humble us, because they show us the full depths of our imperfection and inadequacy, a painful tear-apart sort of humbling.
However grace humbles us in a empowering, wonderfully uplifting way, a humbling that at once impresses us with our unworthiness and the subsequent greatness of the grace shown to us; an experience that leaves us chastened and humbled, yes, but also full of gratitude and joy, and love.
A humbling that gives hope--not in ourselves, but in One who gives grace, greater than our wrongs, greater than our mistakes.
a quiet voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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