image by Nani Williams from Unsplash
continued from part 1
In his book True Community, Jerry Bridges points out the special privilege that our friendships with other Christians (especially those in the same church) should be. We should treasure what we have in common, what our union with them is based on: our common status as redeemed sinners, seeking to serve and be more like Christ. We should be eager to talk with them about Christ, the joys and struggles of following Him, our daily experiences of being in a relationship with Him; what we cannot talk about with our other friends.
The irony, as Bridges adds, is that all too often we talk about everything except that. During refreshments, we chatter determinedly on about exams, trips, the best coffee, work life balance, sports news, and what a spectacular disappointment the new MacDonalds’ salted egg yolk fries were. We reduce ourselves—unknowingly, from sheer habit, or because we’re not comfortable to go further—to another club, another social interaction in the broadest sense of the word. Trying to find something in common that we can relate to, from hobbies to celebrity crushes to music genres and whether or not we’re fellow Starbucks/Star Wars fans, so we can “bond.”
When we never really needed to. Since all along we already have something—Someone—in common.
Bridges challenges us to rethink the purpose and content of our conversations in church every Sunday. The whole perspective, in fact, with which we see our church friends and family.
Even as older Christians, we tend to have the wrong mindset towards our relationships in church. We need to “touch base” with so-and-so. Catch up. Hear about your week. Make friends with the new visitor. Not wrong, granted, but very much secular social interaction behaviour. All about maintaining that very superficial, uncertain first level of friendliness.
Granted, this probably isn’t a new concept to you. If you’re like me, you’re uncomfortably aware that yeah, we’re supposed to have more spiritual conversations—but it’s terribly awkward and feels so contrived…but it’s really hard if you’re not close enough, and don’t you need to develop the friendship more first--
Yes, there is a point to that. Most of us would squirm if someone you didn’t know very well did the *awkward cough, even more awkward attempt at eye contact:* “So, how’s your spiritual life?”
I remember when a sermon was once preached on the need for "more spiritual conversations" in church. For about two weeks, we all tried manfully, if horribly awkwardly--after which everyone unanimously gave it up with a sigh of relief.
I think the key here is the perspective. Instead of seeing “spiritual conversation” as a dreaded duty, we need to start learning to see it as a privilege. As something we probably don’t get to talk about much during the rest of the week. As something we’re interested in, and which we know they are too. As something we can mutually relate over.
A bit like the fun of meeting up with any specific friend group—old classmates, cousins, colleagues etc. You can relive stupid private jokes and rehash ancient memories without coming across as that hopelessly nostalgic person trying to convince others how fun and happening they used to be. Or how you can look over old family photos with your mom without becoming that annoying person who forces guests to look through albums of ancient baby photos, expecting them to be interested when they can’t see any difference between all the yellowed and expressionless babies.
Perhaps the best example is how, in any field of specialization, you can "talk shop"--whether with old classmates, colleagues, or someone you've just met who's in the same line (regardless of whether that means bone density and the twelve functions of the liver, or Freud and psychoanalysis in Edgar Allan Poe.)
Whereas in contrast, if you tried this with someone who didn’t share the same experiences/knowledge, you would probably end up alienating them and creating an awkward awareness of how they can’t relate (and probably also look like an unbearable snob showing off a lack of EQ.)
In this case, you don't come across as contrived, awkward, or dutiful in dwelling on your shared common experiences/interests. In fact, it becomes a natural opportunity to seize, a natural means to bond over, to affirm old relationships and build up new ones.
This makes all the difference between that short-lived and woefully unnatural attempt, and what Jerry Bridges pictures here. Rather than dutifully asking each other “How has your spiritual life been this week” (ugh) it becomes a natural sharing/outpouring of our common experience (“did you see the match last night?”/ “you know how Bible memory seems like such an impossible challenge?” In the same way we gravitate to the standard topics we relate over.
“Oh I watched that movie last week and thought it was really good, did you like it?”/“I didn’t get the last point from the sermon just now, did you?”/
“I’ve been trying to exercise more haha, any tips?”/“recently I’ve been struggling to focus when I pray, my mind just keeps running off to the things which need to be done, and I dunno…do you have that too? or any ideas how to help with that?”
(okay, yeah that’s rather corny, but I don’t want to be uselessly abstract, so I made myself include some examples, just to get the ideas rolling)
We need to be more intentional with--not just our conversations, but ultimately our relationships in church. We need to start by seeing them as the support group--fanbase--whatever flawed analogy from millenial culture which helps to start changing your perspective of the otherwise inane coffee breaks and superficial weekly hi-byes.
We don't appreciate them, cultivate them, or utilize them as we ought.
And until we do, we miss out on a significant means for spiritual growth and support, one that God uses to bless us with the comfort, guidance, encouragement, love, and joy which godly relationships--even between sinners--have the capacity to offer.
image by Chang Duong from Unsplash
How many close friends of yours are from church?
Church friends can be just another opportunity for (more) small talk and superficial banter, kept alive by private jokes and the occasional fun outing and of course, being friends on social media. ("#youthgroup #smallgroup #fellowship")
Or they can breed stifling expectations and external pressure to conform to a certain image. Do I feel uncomfortable if my church friends see my social media feed? do I dread bumping into someone from church during the week, because of the friends I'm with, or the shade of lipstick I'm wearing?
However, they can also be an incredible platform for building friendships which have the potential to be more honest, reliable, personal (and sustainable!) than what we can expect elsewhere.
Because here--regardless of how badly we have warped this into the exact opposite of what it should be--we have the most conducive foundation for strong friendships: honesty, vulnerability, a common love and purpose which binds us, and forgiveness.
G.K. Chesterton said that the church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. As such, we should be free to relate to each other without constantly labouring to keep up our Nice Person facade, having to hide every crack as it appears. Free to share struggles and needs. Free to forgive, and ask forgiveness, because we already admit that we need to (though ironically, we've somehow managed to give the church a reputation for hypocrisy, superficiality, and judgment despite all this.)
I'm always amazed how Kpop fans from vastly different cultures, languages, and personalities can instantly and effortlessly click once they discover they love the same bands. As Christians, with a common overarching passion that shapes our life and identity, we should experience the same magic.
We see our church friends regularly, every Sunday. Whether we spend this time with them chatting over coffee break about their upcoming exam or trip, the best places for authentic bak kut teh in Singapore, and the latest meme trending on Instagram; or whether we hardly see each other, busy making drinks, talking to the visitors, tidying up the worship room or preparing for Sunday School/Bible Study. Maybe we even see them at prayer meeting or small group during the week. But I want to argue--from my own years of experience and after reading several books on Christian friendship by a variety of pretty different authors--that this may not be enough.
We all want solid, strong, and sustainable friendships; and as Christians especially we want friends who pray for us, encourage us, help us to grow spiritually. Friends who can lovingly hold you accountable. Friends who support you as you try to grow in godliness. Friends who give us Biblical guidance and insight when we need it. Friends who share our heart for Christ and His work, and His people. Friends who will listen, when you confess, with love and gentleness and respect.
And the list goes on.
For the longest time in my teen years I used to pray that God would give me the "good Christian friend" every Christian parent and teen hopes fervently will appear miraculously in their church. Someone fun and lovable and godly all at the same time! Wouldn't that be nice? Then I would definitely be growing spiritually, instead of stagnating or drifting like I am now.
The problem is that ideal friendships like this very rarely--if ever--appear miraculously in your local church as a nice finished product all ready for you to enjoy, as obvious and fuss-free as if Gabriel himself decided to come and be your "good Christian friend." Gets on really well with you from the start, no bad habits, similar family culture, likes soccer/Marvel movies/fill-in-the-blank too; nice personality, good manners, fun to be around, helps out in church, can't wait to start a youth Bible study, is halfway through memorizing the Shorter Catechism...
Or to be more accurate, perhaps the real problem is that we expect them to come about this way.
We don't passively drift into strong Christian friendships in the same way we don't passively, accidentally drift into glorifying God. You can organize camps together, lead worship, pray together, and see each other every Sunday for year after year; but it doesn't mean that you automatically fall into the powerful, life-changing, God-centered friendship David and Jonathan had.
We need to see the relationship we have with our church friends as potential for this kind of friendship. We may not be near that level now, but without active and intentional investment, we will never be *newsflash of the century.* And this doesn't just mean aimlessly but happily hanging out every night/weekend (the approach we ordinarily would use to build closer friendships.)
We need to see that Christian friendships are about growing together--closer to Christ, and in the process closer to each other.
Jerry Bridges' book True Community address this in the first chapter, by discussing the concept of union and communion. Every relationship can be seen in two aspects: union, or the objective aspect, the basis of your relationship; and communion, or the experiential aspect, the quality of your relationship. Just like how an estranged parent and child would still have the objective aspect of their relationship (they are still inevitably related to each other) though they may lack the experiential aspect (the emotional and personal quality of the relationship.)
These two aspects apply to both our relationship with God, and our relationship with other Christians.
And these two aspects, Bridges argues, are intrinsically related to each other.
How well we understand our union with Christ affects the quality of our communion with Him.
How well we relate with Christ affects how well we relate to other Christians, since our relationship with Christ is the objective basis for our relationship with them.
~to be continued in part 2
Photo by Jake Thacker on Unsplash
The little old lady perpetually wrapped up in a shawl, who smiles at you when you walk by. The old man with the wheezing voice, you can't really understand his mumbling but you're too embarrassed to admit it so you slink away with a strained, awkward smile. The silent one sitting in the corner that is a bit deaf and smells of herbal candies; you tell yourself she's probably dozing off anyway.
If you feel like you "don't know how" to relate or talk to the elderly in your church, then you need to remember that it isn't much different from "knowing how" to relate to anyone else. As long as you have a sincere love and desire to reach out to them, and patience (patience! patience!), you'll start learning how to see things from their perspective, understand their needs, challenges, and what makes them "click"--nothing at all different from getting to know anyone else.
For starters, though, here are some things that might help you start, since we all know that first steps often take the most courage:
1. acknowledge their presence. Greet them when you see them. Okay, this should apply to anyone actually, regardless of age--but especially the elderly. A very traditional Asian practice, maybe--my parents always told me that when visiting, I should find and greet the oldest person in the house to show respect--if dying out nowadays. But respect ought to transcend cultures, whether racial or social.
Often, because they're quiet, or not at the center of things, they get left out. People don't even acknowledge their presence. Maybe they don't hear that well, so make sure your greeting is loud and cheerful--or at least accompany it with a physical gesture to make it more obvious. A wave, a smile, a handshake, a pat on the back, a hug. There was an elderly man who could be seen feeding the cats under my block every day. He always looked fearfully grumpy, yet there was a kind of pathetic loneliness in how he would spend hours, with his favourite cat on his lap, simply sitting there silently. I used to smile at him in passing, but he never responded, and I felt--rather hurt--that he was as grumpy as he looked. It was only later on that my mom, taking the time to actually stop and talk to him, found out that his eyesight was poor. Sure enough, the next time I saw him I tried waving to him. His whole face lit up and he waved back, eagerly, smiling so widely my heart ached and I felt a pang of self-reproach.
2. talk to them. This sounds simple, and it is. Several of the older people in my church revealed how much it means to them when a young person comes up to them and spends time talking with them--regardless of age, different interests, even language barriers. It may take a while, it may feel awkward at first, but as with any other friendship, perseverance, patience, and sincerity work wonders.
3. be interested to hear their stories and be open to learn from them. Ask them to teach you how to cook that curry chicken you love. Ask them about themselves when they were your age. Ask them how they learnt to knit so well, or how they came to believe in Christ.
4. affirm their role in the church, what they do for the church. whether it's praying, cooking, or simply faithfully attending despite the rain or the backaches or the sleepless night, elderly people often play a greater role in our churches than we--or they themselves--realize. They may struggle with feeling irrelevant, useless, or unnecessary, as the way some of them talk about themselves--jokingly or otherwise--indicates. It's important to affirm and encourage them, to remind them that age and physical limitations do not define the impact we can have on others.
5. encourage them in their spiritual walk. As we get older, we face the same challenge that we had when we were young, for different reasons. We may be tempted to sink into selfishness, to live lives bogged down by self-centeredness--
--for young people, because we have our whole life before us, and all the world to explore and conquer, every reason to enjoy life. So many distractions! So many desires! So many dreams!
--but also, as we get older, because our body becomes more and more of a concern everyday. Because everyone else is rushing on in their lives at the same time we slow down more and more. Maybe we can't hear--taste--see--walk so well, we can't enjoy the same things others do, and we feel increasingly isolated from them. So many small little things which affect the quality of our daily lives, which are so simple and mundane to others that they can't fathom, but which are frustratingly significant to us--bad teeth, hearing loss, failing eyesight, sleeplessness, multiple doctor's appointments...which all have a direct impact on our quality of life and interactions with others.
6. help them to be involved and interacting with the lives of others in the church. Introduce young people to them, bring children over to say hi, ask them to pray for you/someone else/someone you're praying for. Tell them about that young mom who's been struggling with a new baby and ask them what advice they would give. Help them be aware about the needs of other people in church; the missionaries you're praying for, ministries you're involved in.
True healthy friendships aren't limited to the two people in the friendship alone but continue to have a 'splash effect' in the way they bless others outside of it, build other positive friendships--thereby bringing even more blessings to the two main people in it.
7. be thoughtful and considerate of their needs. Maybe you need to walk slower, talk louder, or just be a more patient listener. Maybe they need a hand when it's dark and it's hard to see the road clearly. Someone to send them back, or help them carry their bags. Preempt their needs and challenges, whether the challenge of stairs, or finding them a seat. Or the temperature. If they have trouble with their teeth when eating. Once when my grandma had been unwell, a sweet young sister in church prepared a box of grapes, washed clean and painstakingly peeled, for her. My grandma was very touched that she had spent enough time and attention talking to her, sitting with her, in church to know that, and to remember it. Small gestures like that demonstrate that you are sensitive to their needs and challenges, that you are looking out for them, that you care for them, in concrete and tangible ways.
Perhaps it starts with something as small as smile, as making them laugh...
How many of you want to be a blessing to your church?
A few hands appear--hopefully, that is.
How many of you want to feel blessed by your church?
Based on the general discontent that characterizes our current attitude towards the church, a lot more hands appear. Sure, there are problems--when has there ever not been?--new struggles, old ones, weak people, miscommunication; nothing new under the sun, to quote Ecclesiastes 1:9.
Well, here are 5 ways to bless your church--and yourself in the process, because the two come together:
1. Don't be a church-ninja. You can be a regular attendee but unable to name more than five people; or perhaps only the usher on duty that Sunday knows you even turned up at all. Don't come for service wrapped in an invisible cloak and magically vanish immediately after. Sometimes people just need that little bit of initiative. Sometimes they just need an answering smile to be brave enough to approach you (from my own experience, this is very much the case.) Go make a coffee and a friend in the process. Don't hide in the toilet or seek refuge in your phone, tucked away in the empty worship hall after everyone's left. The temptation to keep to yourself in your comfort zone, not give any more effort than it took to get out of bed and turn up, is very real, regardless of whether you're in a big church or a small one. This applies to whether you're a visitor or a regular attendee, someone who maybe grew up in church but feels disconnected and insecure. It's easy to do nothing; but then you shouldn't be surprised if you feel like you're not "getting" anything (a phrase I've actually heard several times. Maybe we should start handing out goody bags and participation certificates at the church exit.)
Reach out to people. And pray for the wisdom and love--and yes, maybe courage too--that you need to do that.
2. Get your hands dirty. Be involved in serving. Whether in small, prosaic ways and needs--coming from a small church which rents classrooms for our worship venue, setting up the place (ie. tagging all the desks with numbers and drawing a diagram on the whiteboard so we could rearrange the classroom back in order afterwards, setting out chairs and laying out hymnbooks etc) was one important, if often downplayed, area of service as well as a very real need. Take a look at what are the existing areas of service and needs in your church; whether committing to pray for people, visiting someone who is unwell, hosting visitors, or simply offering to usher. Smile and hold out a hymnbook. How much simpler can it be?
And consider: what are your gifts, your passions, or your assets, and how can they translate into a way you can bless your church? Perhaps you want to try your hand at flower arrangements. Bring an arrangement every Sunday and remind people of the beauty of the Creator we are gathered to worship (this is what I've been doing for years, and I'm always surprised and touched by the people who tell me how much they enjoy and appreciate the flowers every Sunday. I never thought a hobby could add to the atmosphere of Sunday worship in such a meaningful way.)
Or bless others with your signature recipe, like that grandma in my church who makes wonderful Nonya kuih in the true traditional style, down to using the dye from blue flowers. If love was soft, sweet, and sticky, that would be it.
Open your home or organize something for the children; share your new waffle iron, or some free movie tickets your boss gave you. I'm learning how creatively you can serve in church from the examples of others. Look around for inspiration.
Serving takes sacrifice, courage, vision, and dedication. It may start with something as small as volunteering to wash cups or push a wheelchair; but there is so much more that God has in mind for us in serving, than simply being the human instrument to get the job at hand done. Being involved in serving helps you to understand and appreciate the others who serve you; helps you understand your church and its needs better. One of the best ways to integrate and get to know people is when you do things for them and together with them.
3. Affirm people. In every church there is a backbone of people who are serving faithfully, often unacknowledged, often over many years. Like pastors and teachers who are more often criticised and taken for granted than it would be nice to acknowledge, they need encouragement. Take the time to be thankful. Notice those who are working in the background, and more often than not there's much you can learn from them.
4. Take charge of your spiritual growth. Don't see this as the pastor and Bible study teacher's job. I think they'll thank you for it. Jesus told Peter to shepherd His flock, not put them in incubators on tube feeding. The church is there to encourage and facilitate spiritual growth; it is the means to an end, rather than an end in itself. If you think that being there to sing hymns and warm a chair in the congregation is the extent of your input in accomplishing this goal, please think again. You're not here to be spoon fed spiritual truths and maturity like a pate de foie gras goose, though admittedly that would be a much cushier form of sanctification. Do your devotions. Read your Bible on your own, not just every Sunday during the worship reading. Study the parts of the Bible you don't understand, ask intelligent questions, don't assume that your spiritual growth depends on how knowledgeable or gifted your pastor or Bible Study teacher is. Too often we come to church with an entitled attitude that both prevents us from gaining anything, and sets us up to tear down others. All right, I'm here, I've done my part, now it's your job to make me feel my great sacrifice of several hours of sleep was worth it; by the time I walk out these doors I'd better have experienced a revival, seen several conversions, and feel on fire with the Holy Spirit; and if not, that just proves this church is lousy.
We come to church as if we're judges on the panel of some spiritual reality show, as if we're consumers trying out (spiritual) food at a new restaurant.
When you take the responsibility for your own spiritual growth, you will be less passive, less quick to judge, less entitled. More open and humble. Don't see church as your weekly dose of Christianity, like enforced exercise; hit the gymn on your own, embrace the challenges, the enjoyment, and the benefits that come with it.
5. Understand that every church has its strengths and weaknesses, as they are made up of sinful people. Perhaps I'm not one to speak, as someone who has been in the same church all my life; but as I see and hear others discuss the seemingly impossible task of finding and choosing a suitable church, I've concluded that it's rather like choosing a spouse.
In other words, no one person/church will ever be perfect. However great they are at dancing, playing the guitar, or making cute bento box lunches, they still wake up with bad breath in the mornings or leave dirty laundry on the floor. What's important, then, is deciding what combo of pros and cons works for you? What strengths are greater, more important, than the weaknesses? What's your deal breaker? And just like choosing a spouse, this decision and this relationship requires you to be humble and ready to admit your own mistakes and sins. To be willing to forgive others. To see that people who have different opinions, personalities, etc are God-given ways for you to learn humility, forbearance, love.
To understand the magnitude of Christ's love in learning what sacrificial, selfless love is, first-hand.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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