photo credits: meeee for once
It's always good to get out of your corner, see how others are labouring for God in their own ways and means, get some perspective on what would otherwise be an increasingly narrow mindset. You come away feeling humbled--sobered, to reassess your privileges, challenges, strengths, weaknesses--and excuses. To see more clearly, and appreciate better.
The last thing that struck me from that trip was the courage that comes from selflessness.
There are so many excuses when it comes to sharing the gospel, to ministering, to what boils down to the messy work of loving imperfect people. As someone who doesn't like conflict, I'm a genius at thinking up all the possible bad outcomes and ways something could be misunderstood and taken as offensive. Down to language barriers, cultural barriers, age, conversational skills, natural personality bents... But I'm not a theologian, what if they ask me a question that I can't give a pat answer to? But I'm not good at keeping conversations going, there's going to be awkward pauses for sure. But I don't know if she'll get angry at me or think I'm weird. But what if my mistake makes him think badly about all Christians in general?
This trip, as I watched ministry in action, I couldn't help but marvel at how simple, and yet how incredibly difficult it was. Like Jesus dying on the cross, a straightforward action that nevertheless is mind-boggling to comprehend. Difficult people. Difficult situations. And yet, despite all that, the answer isn't making sure that you're well schooled in theology, or have memorized bunches of key passages from the Bible, or being naturally super patient and kind, or innately skilled at interacting with people and building relationships or just "really godly"--all advantages that definitely help but are nevertheless not the answer.
This ties in to Piper's perspective on missions, that it's not something only the holiest and strongest of Christians are worthy enough to be called to (though the confusion on this area is probably due to the fact that at the same time, the process of that ministry often transforms you in spiritual maturity, creating more opportunities for you to grow in closeness and reliance on God.) Piper defines missions in two categories, evangelism (spreading the gospel wherever God has placed you, in your own people group, to the people around you in your everyday life) which is some thing all Christians should have incorporated in their lives--and missions, which he defines as spreading the gospel to a different people group, often requiring you to overcome lingual or cultural barriers, with the aim of establishing a church.
In other words, missionaries are not a rare, superior class of Christians that you and I can comfortably and modestly claim not to belong to.
There's a lot of food for thought in this chapter on missions in Desiring God, (and he develops this starting point in much more depth than I can here) but I'll stick with just this one small point for now, in the context of this post.
I remember the paralyzing sense of helplessness that gripped me when I stood there looking on dumbly, wanting so much to somehow help, yet acutely conscious of feeling unworthy, of feeling inadequate. I felt so horribly out of place. What could you say, to someone who was dying, who was in great pain, without much hope of being healed of it? What could you say without feeling hopelessly inept, without fearing that you would come across as insensitive? It seemed much safer to just be quiet and uncomfortable. Whether in English or Chinese I felt useless, though I argued that if I had been able to use English I might have done better.
What I witnessed, however, was people overcoming their limitations--whether of language abilities, of navigating difficult situations or answering tough questions--with a courage born of selflessness, where sincere, genuine selfless love leaves no room for self-consciousness or fears. A true reliance on God to the extent that their own abilities are no longer the issue, but they rise to the challenge with faith that God will use them. A practical application of the seemingly paradoxical, yet perfect tension between God's sovereignty and man's responsibility.
To conclude--perhaps the next time I shouldn't be blaming my own limitations and lack of abilities, shouldn't be obsessing over how likely I am to make a mistake, to mess this up. To be brutally honest, it's simply self-centered fear masquerading as humility. True love for others would make your desire to help, to bless, stronger than your fear--just as true faith, or true humility, would base your actions on the knowledge that God equips and God empowers, that no act of service we do for God is wholly defined by your effort and your abilities.
Again, God's sovereignty and man's responsibility; we don't serve God because He needs us to. Our ministry and our labours are all within His power and plan, taking away any opportunity for human pride, for the little pats on the back of self-righteousnessness and the martyred air of self-pity. God does not delight in a "self-pitying spirit of sacrifice," to borrow another phrase from Desiring God. Rather, to see it from the perspective behind Jim Elliot's famous quote:
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.
photo credits: meeee for once
I think we all agree that there are many needs in our society. Many people groups who are disadvantaged or marginalized in different ways. There is social injustice and neglect at some level in every society, no matter how advanced and sanitized it may seem on the surface, and not being able to see that clearly is usually a good indicator that you too live within the nice bubble wrap layer of privilege and comfort.
I think we also all agree that "it would be nice to do something about it." We'd all love to feel that we're making a difference, that we're improving the lives of others, that we're helping to resolve problems and meet needs. At the same time, that's often the furthest we go. Having said that, we fall back with a helpless shrug and sigh, "But what can I do?"
I'm just one person, after all. I've got no resources. I've got no billions at my disposal. Still trying to pay my own bills, to juggle all my own responsibilities. When it comes to time, I've got barely enough for myself. When it comes to money, why, I don't have enough for myself either. I guess I'll just, er, pray?
Not to dismiss the importance of prayer, of course. But we tend to make that the conclusion to our list of reasons why we can't do anything. I thought that if I couldn't really make a lasting, real difference, I might as well not do anything at all; I worried that I was not educated enough, not experienced enough, that this idea wasn't worthy enough, or it wasn't comprehensive enough. There were so many reasons to hesitate. Too many things to fear. Too many causes for doubt.
I didn't know where to start, or how to start, so I conveniently shelved the whole issue under those excuses, (a familiar coping mechanism, no?) and it was only when I started reading Timothy Keller's book Generous Justice that I felt I was finally starting to deal with this topic properly. It challenged me to better understand and validate this vague sense of urgency--two necessary steps in actually pursuing it. Because sure, everyone accepts that it's good to help others; but specifically as a Christian, why is it so important? what does it signify? How do we help others, what goals or principles should guide us?
Though I haven't finished Keller's book yet, it's already offered some insightful and challenging teachings on this whole issue. Here are some of the key concepts that stood out to me:
Jesus's teaching reflects the same mentality of the OT prophets; the same "penetrating use of justice as heart-analysis, the sign of true faith." As you would remember if you're familiar with the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Micah, the prophets condemned a people who observed external religious duties meticulously, and took pride in it, yet neglected to apply justice in their lives and societies, oppressing the weak and doing nothing to help the needy: "A lack of justice is a sign that the worshippers' hearts are not right with God at all, that their prayers and all their religious observances are just filled with self and pride." (Generous Justice, chapter 3: What did Jesus Say About Justice?)
Keller quotes Isaiah 29:21, when God condemns the people with "depriving the innocent of justice," describing them as "people [who] come near to Me with their mouth and honour Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me." He concludes, "A lack of concern for the poor is not a minor lapse, but reveals that something is seriously wrong with one's spiritual compass, the heart."
Also, the need for "multiple layers of help", which Keller identifies as "relief, development, and social reform." This challenged me to be thoughtful and specific about an otherwise abstract concept of "help." In order to truly help someone, you need vision for them, that does more than simply resolve the specific problem at hand/meet the urgent need. This reminded me of random articles I had seen online which really resonated with me--people who were blessing their societies and the needs of their communities with vision and dedication and purposefulness, in ways which would have a splash effect/continue to work a positive impact far beyond the actual site of help. I'll mention Simply Wholesome, which makes healthy food affordable and accessible to underserved communities, breaking the cycle where unhealthy, processed, or fast food is all you can afford to know, so that eating healthy doesn't have to be yet another privilege limited to certain income brackets. By doing so, they offer the option to educate and empower individuals to live more healthily, cultivating something far more than merely deciding your next meal.
During my trip, we had the privilege of visiting a small company run by Christians, a team of six people, who had a vision to holistically improve the lives of the farming communities. Just six people, and yet their work encompassed aspects as diverse as clean water, education, better farming practices, and fair trade. I was amazed, and humbled, by the scope of their work--no, ministry is a better term--and their humility and hopefulness. Whereas I had been in Singapore lamenting the fact that it was just me, a broke student, with lots of ideals and hopes but no concrete way of doing anything, here they were, working with limited resources and manpower, yet creating so much change and bringing so much blessing to multiple communities, through individuals and individual families. Hearing them share about their plans, and their beginnings in individual conviction made it clear just how much their faith had to do with initiating and equipping this; providing them with the perseverance, the courage, and the sacrificial love to continue.
I felt challenged to examine my list of reasons--instead of lack of resources or ability, was it a lack of faith? Of that sacrificial spirit? A lack of dedication, to apply and commit myself to research, to action.
It was sobering, humbling, to try and answer those questions. But it was also inspiring to see what they had done, to re-examine what you thought were your limitations, to realize that God delights to show His power through our weakness, through even our limited resources and lack of confidence, through the very fears and doubts that held us back...
photo credit: meee for once
It's been a while since my last trip, and I realized this when I discovered I had jotted my reflections down on my old phone's notes--about a year since I'd moved on to my current phone!
I can't share any names or places, but I want to share some of those thoughts, because rereading them reminded me all over again to live more thoughtfully, to live more purposefully, to be more aware of how my life works out God's glory. To love better. To live less selfishly (and the phrase "unmitigated selfishness" still pops into my mind now, years later...)
The same underlying spiritual needs, despite all the differences.
When we visited the village, all the way in the mountains, everything seemed so utterly different, so foreign, even unrelatable. The dirt roads. The spluttering tractor which had to be cranked by hand. The fields of vegetables and the brilliant sun stabbing at your eyes even under cap brims and hoods. The small pastel-coloured church with its wooden pews and dusty, candy-coloured walls. The old accordion and piano that came wheezing to life, filling the place with clouds of breathlessly beautiful echoes, thrilling against the walls in golden shivers. When the young people in the choir sang for us I felt a spasm of that tingling, yearning sensation that beauty has on me, as if their white choir robes really were angel's raiment; and simultaneously, an uncomfortable awareness of how ridiculously urban and cold we must have seemed, videoing them with smart phones, jarring the spell of the music. Like Bach being videoed for Youtube. It seemed to tie in to my unconscious sense of the discrepancy between us, the unspoken binary of rural vs urban, and all the associations that thousands of years have handed down to us, the Romantic poets' pet peeve...
And then unexpectedly we were asked to share our testimonies with them, as a form of encouragement. As we clumsily went up the small stage, looking and feeling like sausages in our quilted jackets, thermal wear, and layers of sunblock--to my surprise, we faced a sea of smart phones, all busily recording us!
Naive, wasn't I, to think we were really that different...
And that just reinforced what I later heard about the struggles this particular village church had, which were startlingly parallel to our own testimonies that we had shared. Ironically so. So much for the binary. Those young people singing so angelically, were, like us, kids who had grown up in Christian families, thanks to the missionaries who had first brought the gospel. Like us, they had grown up "christianized", with Christianity as an unquestioned part of their culture, their family, their society. Just like how their abundant musical talent found an outlet in the acapella, choral singing, and music which Christianity had given rise to, making it an integral part of their culture. They went to church, they sang in the choir (and beautifully at that,) they were our counterparts of GCBs and GCGs (Good Christian Boys and Good Christian Girls, acronymns I recently learnt whose existence reflects something about mainstream Christianity's presence in Singapore culture) the only thing being--as with us--that christianized would be more accurate.
So many of us "second-gen" Christians came from a similar background, with its specific challenges and pitfalls. Don't get me wrong! Of course, there are so many advantages and privileges too, but we do need to be aware of the possible problems as well.
So many of us--even well-taught conservative Reformed Baptist kids who can define election and justification in their sleep, and every letter in TULIP--end up relating to Christianity as a lifestyle, broken down into a long list of directions on how to live your life. So many of us, even though we know clearly--thanks to conscientious Sunday School teachers and parents--that we're not saved, find the lines blurring as we live within a "born-again" lifestyle yet without the actual motivation or reason to, other than pleasing our parents or doing what we feel is right. So many of us end up getting disillusioned, feeling oppressed by legalism, and failing to see the true point of it all. And eventually when new passions and desires come crowding into our lives we let it all go, like a burden, feeling like we want to move on to find true fulfilment, true meaning.
The same spiritual challenges and needs, whether on top of the mountain surrounded by random cows and walnut trees, or a 20 storey apartment over a mall in Singapore, with a subway track outside your window and a traffic junction down below.
All God's servants in different countries, ministering in different churches, in different ways, to people who seem so different--yet, really, isn't it the same work? The same needs. The same struggles.
And the same love that started it all, that carries you through, that perseveres...
continued in part 2
image by Debby Hudson from Unsplash
Contrary to the concerns that a lot of good Christian friends had, my experience of studying lit in uni (though admittedly atypical) reinforced and affirmed my faith in many ways, one of which was equipping me to enjoy and appreciate the Bible far more. I'll try not to get sidetracked; I wrote this post twice over because I ended up arguing my point rather than moving on to the actual topic! Another day, another post. First things first.
The Old Testament and the New Testament were just really fun storybooks to me, growing up, with their respective boring parts. I skipped deftly through the Psalms and the Minor Prophets in the Old Testament, and just as skillfully passed over the expository books in the New Testament, preferring to immerse myself in the rollicking blockbuster books of Genesis, Joshua, Judges, 1st and 2nd Kings, Chronicles, Nehemiah; and in the New Testament, the Gospels, the miracles of Jesus, and the surreal, fantastic visual imagery of Revelations.
And that was it! Cool stories but all pretty disjointed (no wonder, considering I just picked out the parts I liked.) Like picking out the parts of a jigsaw puzzle that have pictures on it, and ignoring all the parts that are just blank sky/grass/background (=my childhood.)
It was only in my teens when I was talking stuff with my dad and asked him why we didn't have to offer sacrifices nowadays (thankfully; anyone has any idea how to get a live sheep in Singapore?) He explained to me about the old and new covenant, how Jesus was our last and ultimate Sacrifice, the last Passover Lamb, that for the first time I glimpsed more than a mere chronological connection between the Old and New Testament, glimpsed part of the significant overarching themes that made them so perfectly complementary.
That was just the beginning. Suddenly there was a whole vista of meaning and significance to the kind-of-gross animal sacrifices, the blood, (I mean, "fatty lobe attached to the liver??" That phrase being repeated so many times in Leviticus always had a weird fascination for me) the OT prophets talking about the Messiah, the Ten Commandments and Jesus's "neo" Ten Commandment preachings in Matthew.
The Old Testament, best summarized in the Garden of Eden and the Ten Commandments, represented the story of humanity's perfect creation, the sinless, ideal state we were meant to exist in, and the ideal relationship we were meant to have with God. The fall. The impossibility of us regaining our previous state, no matter how hard we tried, or how many brownie points we tried to accumulate to offset our demerit points. The significance of the Ten Commandments, since their very existence proves the intrinsic nature of our sin, and since their simplicity and impossibility are like a death knell to any hope of us being able to redeem ourselves.
But (to use another literary term) also a foreshadowing of the solution, the first introduction of the theme of redemption and substitution, of death as a means to life. Of sacrifice.
The first deaths in the Garden of Eden and the messy sacrificial ceremonies in Leviticus, the mystic substitution and "unfairness" of the Passover Lamb, the same theme running through the Old Testament like a blood-red thread.
And then the New Testament. All Jesus's teachings about the heart, about how holiness and sin aren't limited to external actions, on trust. His death on the cross, and how it overturned all the expectations and definitions of success/failure that both His enemies and His disciples had. The ultimate example of "My strength is made perfect in weakness." The depth and scale of God's plan for salvation, not only in a historical context, but in a thematic sense as well.
Wow. Talk about epics. You know that breathless, heart-wringing feeling you get from epic sagas like Lord of the Rings, the great themes which make classics so striking and gripping? The Bible had like the origins of so many of those great themes, simultaneously; and still held them all together with a breathtaking unity. A theme which still grips our hearts today.
I changed my perspective of the Old and New Testament as merely chronologically related, realizing how they work together to explore and develop the overarching significant theme/themes of God's grace and man's redemption. The miraculous paradox of how Jesus's death enabled both God's attributes of holiness and mercy at once. The equally miraculous paradox of how we can be both condemned sinners and perfect in God's eyes, the elect. The juxtaposition of the old and the new man, the conflict within the soul, the mystical work of the Holy Spirit in "turning hearts of stone to flesh--" what a metaphor, by the way.
How to read the Old and New Testaments in a complementary approach:
1. Cross reference. I know--I used to hate being directed somewhere else, too lazy to flip through all those pages just for one verse! With technology, it might have gotten easier--or use both; leave one open where you're studying and use another Bible for your cross references, so you can see them side by side.
Take that extra bit of effort. You might find yourself seeing that passage in a whole different light, seeing a new perspective, seeing another of those thematic thread that run through both Testaments.
2. Read with an awareness of the overarching themes. As discussed above--but not exhaustively--having this deductive approach rather than a linear one when it comes to reading the Bible enables you to see the big picture. For example, study with a focus on how both Testaments reveal God's person, how they develop different attributes, or the same one. What hasn't changed, what has?
3. When studying the Bible--especially if it's a complete Bible study plan--don't, whatever you do, do it chronologically. From personal experience, I find this a sure way to kill your enjoyment and motivation. Just imagine facing the long plod ahead through Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Or resigning yourself to a string of nondescript Minor Prophets. Or one epistle after another. It's just setting yourself up for task-oriented, get-it-off-the-list, I-feel-like-dying frustration. What's more, there's a high chance that you end up more and more myopic, seeing each incident in isolation, failing to grasp the context and greater picture. I appreciate how Search the Scriptures jumbles the Old and New Testament books, encouraging you to dabble equally in both, and how I have the freedom to pick what book--Old or New--appeals to me at the time, while still pursuing a systematic whole-Bible study program.
4. When you hit something that makes you feel uncomfortable, or weirded out--"Ehh. Er why did God put this in, what's the point of this?" don't pass it over. Chances are these are some significant spiritual growth opportunities, as they were in my own experience; the sacrifices, the whole concept of the Holy Spirit, King David's less-than-perfect track record that jarred with his title as "the man after God's own heart."
5. And lastly, go. Do it. Don't be intimidated by the theology, or parts you think you can't understand, or simply the mental effort it requires to really think through and study the Word. Don't wait till you're retired, have more time, have enrolled in a theology course, going to be a full-time church worker or church leader, have a nice quiet rainy morning with a cup of your favourite tea and no background noises or commitments on your schedule to hurry you....
...ooh now we're getting a bit personal!
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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