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“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
We may not like to admit it, but this word perfectly summarizes the times in our spiritual life when we've fallen into a comfortable plateau. Sure, I'm not growing, but at least I'm still coming to church every Sunday, right? Isn't that the most important thing? As long as I have that I can't be too far off. I'll work on my prayer life and deal with those petty sins when I'm less busy, at a better time. When was the last time we caught ourselves thinking something along these lines?
Laodicea was a thriving, prosperous city. Much like Singapore today. Many things, many people, many concerns; so many things to do, to earn, to enjoy, to worry about.
They had a booming textile industry, especially in producing a valuable type of black wool. They were famous for their medicine schools and pharmaceuticals. And not surprisingly, for such a wealthy city, they were also a financial center for banking and money changing.
How did the church in Laodicea fall away from their first love into lukewarmness? When did the marriage between Christ and this church first start to crumble, so to speak? When did the church become just another social club where you can get by as long as you pay the basic dues expected of the members--turn up, contribute financially, and occasionally participate in the "extra" activities.
When did Christ fade out of the picture?
When we reduce Him to a religion of habit and convenience.
When believing in Him and serving Him becomes no more than another practice--activity--habit--which adds to out lifestyle.
Like brushing our teeth every morning, or exercising once a week, or watering our plants. Just another "good habit" which gives us a sense of satisfaction, which we're used to. Ask us to do more and we get uncomfortable. Hey, that's a bit much, you know? Of course, one day I'll try harder, but for now, this is good enough, I'm getting by...
When we're willing to fulfil the "basic obligations," (and maybe, afraid to do less) but only as far as it suits our habits or convenience. As long as it doesn't infringe on the rest of our lives--our time, our energy, our resources, our pleasures, our plans, or even our concerns. As long as it doesn't challenge our current lifestyle and desires. Unwilling to commit to more, because we see it as a sacrifice.
I call this the bare pass mentality, speaking from years of experience as a frustrated teacher. That student may not actually hate the subject; they may like you, they may even like your lessons, and have some sort of interest in it. But when it comes to the hard work of finishing assignments--struggling with quizzes or essays--practicing everything, everyday, without leaving out the hardest arpeggios or the sight-reading they hate--they shirk anything more than a token minimum. I just need to pass, right? they say with a shrug. I'm really busy with my other subjects in school now, you know.
And I've lost track of the number of times I've yelped (at wit's end,) "Just cut down on Youtube for ten minutes, play one less handphone game, or put in five minutes every day--you definitely can make the time to do a better job than this. Why settle for the bare minimum? You're going nowhere at this rate. If you're don't put in the effort it deserves, you'll never experience the fulfilment and satisfaction of being good at this skill."
Similarly--what are we settling for? A false god, like Greg Gilbert describes in What is the Gospel?: "...just a good-natured, low-maintenance friend who's really easy to talk to--especially since he almost never talks back, and when he does, it's usually to tell me through some slightly weird 'sign' that what I want to do regardless is alright by him...he's grateful for any time he can get...has wishes but no demands, can be safely ignored if you don't have time for him..."
And Christ becomes a mockery of what He truly is. That's why lukewarmness is such a serious sin. To Christ, lukewarmness is worse than coldness--contrary to the lie we like to tell ourselves. "I will spit you out of My mouth..."
He tells us, urgently, to wake up. We, who feel so comfortable and complacent, are in desperate need: "wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked."
The nakedness and blindness of the Laodiceans were problems that none of their famous black wool, their famous eye salves, their money, could solve.
We think we know what the answer is, that it lies in the things we busy ourselves with. Instead of recognizing that what we need is Christ, we draw further off from Him, thinking that He will distract us, take up more of our time. We are afraid to commit to Him, grudging the sacrifices we associate following Him with.
It's as if we have a cancerous growth on our face, but we refuse to get it removed, because we insist it's too much trouble to stay in hospital. Instead, we busy ourselves with the latest makeup skills to cover up the growth.
And even then, Christ loves us. In all our foolishness and misguided ways, He loves us and longs for our repentance:
"Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me..."
image by Cameron Offer from Unsplash
It's a horrible feeling, isn't it, when you realize what you should have done--but didn't.
After the storm of an outburst fades, and the fury gripping you gives way to regret.
When you realize that the bitterness you clung onto poisoned your relationships and ruined chances for reconciliation and healing, both for yourself and others.
When, unable to resist, you end up contributing to the private gossip sesh behind someone's back. What felt like harmless, negligible entertainment doesn't feel like that when you're looking at them face to face.
After that sudden eye-opening jolt when for the first time you feel convicted of laziness, selfishness, pride; you see how they've been leaving dirty tracks over each day, each seemingly small action or scene.
Failure, especially failure to do what you should have done.
We talk a lot about Christ's death for us on the cross (and we ought to) but when we reduce it to an isolated event we diminish its staggering significance, the full weight of its impact.
The context of His death--the OT prophecies and history of God's covenant with His people, which the Gospels so insistently refer to, to remind us--the symbolism, the parallelisms, between the Old and New Covenant, between the first and the last Passover Lamb--and also, the life that He lived on earth, before it culminated in the cross. As Wayne Gruddem points out, we often neglect this aspect in our discussion of Christ. Jesus's "active and passive obedience," as the term goes, are the two halves of His perfect redemption of us. They mirror the concept sins of omission and sins of commission, which I still vividly remember learning for the first time from Edna Gerstner's lovable book Conduct for the Crayon Crowd.
"Do not steal," "do not lie," "do not kill,"...these are sins of commission, things we ought not to do, but did.
"Honour your parents," "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and strength, and mind...and your neighbour as yourself," these are sins of omission, things we ought to do, but didn't.
All those years on earth growing up, going through all the mundane processes of childhood, adolescence, puberty, the burdens of adulthood, but WITHOUT SIN--Jesus lived the perfect, spotless life we all should have lived. He wasn't simply biding His time, waiting idly until the time for Him to die on the cross. Every day--every moment--in every small everyday routine and action of His 30 years, He was purposefully, faithfully, steadfastly, working out His redemption for us.
The cross is the ultimate expression of Christ's love for us, but it is precious to me to think of how each ordinary day in Christ's life was also dedicated to His love for us.
He fulfilled what we failed to do.
And His passive obedience? For our sins of commission--all that we did, which we should not have done--He took the punishment for them on the cross, meekly and humbly accepting what He did not deserve, even though any moment He could have stopped it, found relief for Himself or revenge on His enemies.
He suffered what we deserved to suffer.
And His redemption of us is perfect. Complete. Comprehensive.
It redeems us from guilt.
When you struggle with this sense of inadequacy, when guilt for what you failed to do haunts your mind and cripples you, remember that the perfect life--so impossible to us now!--has already been accomplished for us, that on God's record, we have already done all, done well.
"...perfect redemption, the purchase of blood..."
As I prepared for this lesson, I did some reading up on the topic, mainly because last week's lesson had given me so much food for thought. One thing I am very thankful for is how engaged the children are. They constantly ask questions and offer opinions which show me how much--young as they are--they're thinking through and relating to what we're studying. It is humbling to realize how much you don't know, at the same time you're trying to teach so much--a paradox that I've experienced only when I'm teaching spiritual things.
On the other hand that also means being frequently stumped by baffling questions. Do babies go to heaven if they die? can girls be pastors? if demons/fallen angels repent can they go back to being angels? do we wear clothes in heaven? isn't God really annoyed or busy if He has to listen to everyone's prayers and requests at the same time? if God already knows what's in our minds why do we still bother praying? won't we feel sad if we're in heaven but we know that our loved ones are in Hell? does Satan feel joy? if God is all-powerful why can't He come up with another way to save us instead of Jesus having to suffer so much?
And all this was just in one class! Teaching Sunday School is no simple thing. It feels like a crash course in theology sometimes. Four out of ten times I feel woefully inadequate, praying nervously throughout the weekend as Sunday approaches. But it's a challenge which has made me grow--at a rather breathless speed perhaps (try answering weighty theological questions thrown at you from five different kids on different aspects of the Bible at the same time)--spiritually, in ways that I would never have otherwise. Let's be honest--how many of us are dedicated enough to read up and research on questions we might have? I had questions, of course, but was too lazy to bother studying and thinking them through--or too fearful. I think many Christians are too fearful of addressing doubts and tough questions that can't be answered pat. Acknowledging and understanding that there will be questions, there will be things hard to explain, is a form of spiritual maturity, a form of applying what that crucial Biblical phrase means: "the truth will set you free." (John 8:32) We shouldn't shy away from them in the misguided idea that we're "thinking too much," that we might end up losing our faith or becoming a heretic, is hardly what Paul calls us to be when he urges us: "For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but of power, and love, and a sound mind." (2 Timothy 1:7)
We have God's sovereignty and other attributes--our knowledge of Who He is and what He is like--as our guidelines, as well as the bottomless treasure chest of the Word.
image by Jamie Dench from Unsplash
With classes on every day and a busy weekend coming up, the last thing on my mind was getting sick.
Germs have no consideration for the ambitions of man, however, and on the contrary they seem to take a malicious delight in thwarting them. I struggled through one day after another doctoring myself with lemons and trying to sleep more, hoping that my immune system would pick up the next day and have my back, praying that God would let me "just get through this week". To my horror, what seemed like a simple cold soon became a clear case of flu, and my plans for the week were clearly doomed. One class after another, I had to cancel all my engagements, and vegetated on the sofa feeling like my legs had become gummy worms, until I didn't even have the energy to care anymore. I slept whole days through on that long-suffering sofa, passively watching life go by for the rest of my family, slipping in and out of sleep without even realizing it, with a total lack of ambition or interest in life. Even my two guinea pigs eating hay in their house had a more exciting life than me right then.
After falling so low, recovering basically entailed more lying on the sofa (somehow you still feel like it's an improvement from lying in bed) except with enough energy to do so without being perpetually in a semi-sleeping state. I found myself thinking over how my life has been recently, fleeting memories of people interaction, conversations.
This year has definitely been the most challenging (I hate that I say this every year and I hate even more that each time it is the truth! but I suppose that also indicates a grim sort of progress of sorts) year of my life, as I finished studying and took on more work than I ever had before. Every day a different class to teach; picking up new skills, trying to keep up old ones and ongoing projects; trying to keep up my writing, but without any acceptances to stimulate me, only one rejection after another to sigh over. I'm not fishing for pity here. To be honest one of the things which made me feel worse was the fact that I already have it so much better than so many people I know, so many of my peers, who are struggling just to survive financially, let alone have the time to pursue a dream, doing work they may not even enjoy. When I felt overwhelmed, even the temptation to wallow luxuriously in self-pity was soured by the knowledge that I was behaving like a big wimp.
But that's not the point; that's just the background. These few months since I've started this new phase of life, I felt like I had enough on my plate trying to manage my new schedule. Everything else--family commitments, church, social life--became simply so many more straws on top of the camel's back. Mentally exhausted, I felt like I didn't have the energy to talk to people; I got impatient and frustrated easily in my relationships, selfish about my time and energy, grudging anything on top of what I felt was my duty to give. I didn't enjoy living like that. I was aware that I had lost the sense of peace and purpose which I used to have, the joy in simple things like eating dinner with my family or having a good conversation with a friend. I looked forward hungrily to me-time, because it seemed like the only relief from the pressure and whirlwind of things to do which I seemed to be living in all the time, and started to lack the patience and calmness of heart even for these small things. And yet, me-time was more of a temporary distraction than a solution; social media, the latest episode of a show, my favourite Agatha Christie, (Destination Unknown, if you don't already know) they were just escapes, that didn't really leave me feeling refreshed and ready for the challenges of life afterwards. Frustrated, wondering why I never seemed to have enough time, never seemed to be on top of anything, or excited about anything anymore, I kept thinking the answer was to be more efficient, more productive; to cut, cut, cut all the unnecessary things that wasted time and took up energy. I cut the wrong things, obviously. My definition of "unnecessary" and "waste" had been severely warped.
Lying on the sofa, with that unreal sense of weakness and vulnerability, even humility, which physical sickness so uniquely impresses on you, I soberly admitted that I had made a stupid mistake.
An old phrase echoed in my mind; Elisabeth Elliott on a "life of unmitigated selfishness." Selfishness--that had been my mistake. I had become increasingly self-centered, in an attempt to cope with stress. I had lost sight of the things which were truly important, in the hustle of getting urgent things done. I had been living for the boxes on each schedule's page, living from class to class, project to project, deadline to deadline, and treated everything else as distractions.
John 13: 1 is a beautiful reminder of how Jesus responded to this very human challenge.
We often forget that Jesus, of all people, had the best reasons to be anxious and preoccupied, harassed, stressed. Imagine the power He held to heal, and the overwhelming burden that power itself implies; all the people He knew so clearly were hurting, suffering, needing Him. The very thought is enough to induce a panic attack. Add to that His merciful, gentle nature; His love for His disciples, knowing so clearly how devastated they were going to be, how ignorant and unprepared they were; the emotional pain of knowing Judas was about to betray Him, knowing so clearly all the thoughts going on in their hearts, the hatred of those plotting against Him. Add to that His acute awareness of His approaching death, the horrible physical, spiritual, emotional suffering it entailed, getting closer and closer with every moment...the full weight of countless souls' sins and salvation. And the very human reluctance towards pain, towards death, leaving this imperfect yet so appealing world that we love so desperately; all the words you would want to say to those you love before you leave, all the thoughts and emotions...
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.
He loved us to the end.
Amidst all that, He never lost sight of His purposeful love for us, the love which drew Him to the cross. This was what remained steadfast in Christ, that heart of compassion, that gentleness which was in His touch on the leper, that made Him hear the blind beggar's cry above the noise of the crowd, to stop when He felt the sick woman touch His garment. The love with which He let the children climb into His lap, even as the disciples frowned and tried to make signals to Him to stop. The same love burned steady in the confusion, betrayal, pain and fear of Gethsemane; in the loneliness of the high priest's courtyard, the shame and suffering of the barracks, of the cross.
I want to be grounded by such a love. Amidst busyness, distractions, physical ills, frustrations, anxieties, fears. To have this love within me, for others. To have this love for Christ, even as He has for me. To find my peace, comfort, joy, priorities, within the context of such a love.
image by Belle Hunt from Unsplash
Matthew 21:12-1412 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’[a] but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’[b]”
14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
I remember my first introduction to this particular event in the Bible, helpfully illustrated in a children's Bible, one of those big glossy luxe editions where all the folds of the tunics, the feathers of the doves, the shininess of the flying coins, were painstakingly drawn for children like me to pour over for hours. It was with a sense of shock and secret admiration that I realized here was a lesser known, and more conventionally badass, side of Jesus, that challenged the largely passive idea I'd formed of Him. Jesus looked anything but passive flinging those tables over, releasing clouds of fluttering doves, in a reckless whirlwind of action that evoked childhood memories of jumping on sofas, rolling on the ground, screaming at the top of your lungs in wild abandon. Chaos in the midst of manmade order, control, polish, of institutionalized formality.
I have grown up all my life in a small church. We've always struggled with the same challenges--not enough manpower; struggling to maintain the basic logistical work of every Sunday's worship, let alone mission work and outreach work and additional activities. Looking for a pastor. For more Sunday School and Bible Study teachers. For people to help with setting up the worship room every Sunday, with bringing refreshments, with hosting prayer meetings. Dealing with the discouragement of having a scant handful of people turn up for the weekly prayer meetings, watching the numbers dwindle. And the list goes on; many of you can doubtless add to it...
It's easy to wallow in self-pity and discouragement. It's also easy to become overly focused on the tasks that need to be done--just as it would perhaps in a big church. To come up with the most efficient, productive strategy for growth, to race from one activity to another, to outline more SOPs for better organization...
...none of which are wrong, of course, but when they become the main thing we're doing? When we're more preoccupied with running this church (/business/company/startup...) more successfully, more efficiently, more impressively, more productively?
Jesus entered the Temple, a huge impressive tangible symbol of religion as an institution, with all its rites and man-made glamour, with the smooth efficient methods and structure of every successful organization. Read: church services without AV problems or crying babies or embarrassing ringtones; worship where the congregation comes on time, where the preacher is a great speaker with just the right amount of emotional appeal, flawless rhetoric, academic theological references, and anecdotes for that personal touch. Where smiling ushers that look like they were born and bred in aircon and fed on ice cream all their life come swooping effortlessly towards you to escort you to your seat (don't get me wrong, I've nothing against smiling ushers, but I speak from memories of waiting outside the church doors, feeling the sweat gathering on you like a moist second skin, and yourself visibly wilting in the heat even as you clutch a sticky hymnbook and try to look welcoming while melting) Where the venue is beautiful, impressive; modern enough for all the conveniences, yet classic enough to enhance the atmosphere for worship...
So ideal, isn't it? Wouldn't you feel impressed if you attended a church with a service like that? That's the kind of response we'd want our churches to produce on visitors!
My church doesn't even have our own premise; we rent classrooms, like many other small churches in land-scarce Singapore who don't have the funds to purchase and build a venue. Every Sunday we have to drag all our barang (baggage) up from a rickety cupboard and go about the process of converting a messy secondary school classroom with graffiti on chairs, socks and Shakespeare huddled together under desks, and wads of folded paper tucked under uneven table legs, into a place of worship. If I was a preacher I'd probably draw a parallel how, like modern day Abrahams, we are reminded in this way every week how temporary our current state is--aliens in a foreign land; journeying towards a final destination, relying on our faith and purpose rather than a settled place/concrete location for our identity. But I'll spare you the sermon seedling.
From this background, I can easily imagine how, staring up in awe at that beautiful building, you would feel a very man-centric sense of pride and identity--based not so much on God Himself but more on what we have done for Him and how our worship of Him, like culture and language and race and achievements, contributes to our overarching sense of identity and purpose. Not as a faith, in the proper sense of the word, but rather as an accessory. One of many slices in the pie graph of how we define ourselves. Part of community life.
And Jesus resisted this. He resisted the smooth, efficient clock-work structure and system, the successful organization, the institutionalized man-centric idea of God and worship. Deliberately channeling all that was most oppositional to everything the Temple had become--its specific list of what you had to do, to give, to be in the name of worshiping God, converting deeds into spiritual bonus points the way the money changers and dove sellers carried out their business--He became an agent of disruption, as aptly symbolized in how He overturned tables and set the doves free. Can you imagine a more visually effective image than that?
Instead, the blind and the lame entered the Temple, and Jesus healed them. The Temple became a place where real, personal needs were met in a life-changing way, for healing, for joy; "and the children shout[ed] in the Temple courts, Hosanna..."
And after that, the next morning, Jesus comes across the fig tree.
18 Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.
20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
21 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
I've always seen these two events in isolation, and it was the first time I realized they took place one after the other. Search the Scriptures pointed this out, identifying how Jesus's actions addressed the church and what it should be aspiring towards.
As a church, are we busy creating our own idea of what worship should be like? Our own definition of God, which fits nicely into, and in fact relies on the systems and structures we are preoccupied with maintaining? Which, in turn, enable us to present this polished, impressive, seemingly flawless idea of religion--where everyone is nice and polite and agrees with each other, where everything runs smoothly and everyone knows what to do, how to behave, what to say--one that seems like a very convincing way of glorifying God, at first glance, but really does a better job at reflecting well on us, the organizers.
I tell myself this every time something "goes wrong," every time something is less than ideal and we're reminded that we are messy, that things don't turn out as ideally as we might like. Every time I'm tempted to cringe or feel embarrassed or even discouraged.
What is my focus? Why am I feeling like this? Why am I more concerned about the front we're presenting, about how we "come across" to others, about how well or how smoothly or how impressively we manage to do something?
Instead, remember the second event, which took place the day after, and consider--
like the barren fig tree--
how much fruit--the real fruit which matters--are we producing as a church?
Or are we doing a good job at looking like we're thriving, flourishing--plenty of leaves, pretty flowers, nice straight trunks, the kind of tree that would have been picked for a stock image--
but fruitless, under all that.
Like the barren fig tree that disappointed Jesus, and earned His curse.
Christ's example reminds us to remember what we were meant for.
Remember: this is the "season for fruit."
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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