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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..."
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2 with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; 3 giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
"...forbearing one another in love."
Everyday, opportunities for forbearance abound. Whether it's a difficult person, a sinkful of dirty dishes, or that person walking maddeningly slowly in front of you, those moments when you draw a deep breath and feel your jaw muscles tighten are everywhere.
Forbearing is something that hopefully we each strive to do each day. In our families. In our churches. With our Christian or non-Christian friends. With that cranky bus driver who pretends not to see you waving your arms wildly, and drives off. To be patient, to be long-suffering, to keep our temper. To keep silent, when bitterness is strong within us. We learn to control ourselves, to count ten, to endure, reinforcing what we learned since childhood and which seems to be such a big part of adulthood, in order to cope at work, with our families--with people in general. It's nothing new, after all.
But Paul raises this commonplace standard of simply forbearing by the second half of his sentence. "...in love."
Love! Possibly the last thing on our minds when we're struggling not to throw punches!
It was a sobering realization that simply keeping quiet, simply controlling myself from not demonstrating outward signs of anger, is not the ultimate purpose, is not the point of being longsuffering, of forbearing in a Biblical definition. We're just doing a better job at hiding the bitterness and anger--burning inside us, damaging us. And thinking that we're doing well because we didn't break any dishes or noses simply feeds our pride and makes it worse. We feel good for not having demonstrated any of the bad feelings inside; and it makes us feel justified in entertaining them further. I've experienced it myself; you are tempted to brood over it, nurse your grudge for longer, because you feel entitled to it since you didn't vent it. That's unhealthy, even from a secular point of view. From a spiritual point of view--we've missed the whole point. This is the same Bible that tells us God judges hatred within the heart as well as the external action of murder.
Paul says: "forbearing one another in love." Those two words at the end change everything. We forbear, we endure, because we love them, because we are willing to for their sake. Like a longsuffering parent cleaning up vomit for their cranky toddler. We bear with them, out of love. Out of wanting their good. Out of being able to see beyond their weaknesses, to have sympathy and patience. Out of having Christ, and the truth, free us from the parallel yet opposite extremes of people-pleasing and self-centredness.
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I used to complain that of all my siblings, my parents gave me the most difficult name. The Chinese character for慈 (ci) has exactly 13 strokes--just for that character alone--and is a rather unusual one that is not easy to pronounce, even for some Chinese people. Over the years I have learnt to endure it being butchered in a mind-baffling multitude of ways, some of which almost come close to ingenious, without any facial muscles flinching. Chi. Chee. Zee. Zhi. Zzz. Jrrr. Qi. Si. See. And the list goes on. I even got called "Silk" by a class of kids I taught once, because the teacher I was assisting couldn't get it right and I was too embarrassed to correct her.
What gets lost is the meaning behind that difficult character; love--to be more specific, mercy/compassion; love from a higher being to a lower one. Just like how the Greek words agape, philos, eros differentiate between different types of love. God's precious and enduring love, if you want to take the complete meaning of my full name. Not easy to pronounce, maybe, but not easy to comprehend either!
I remember many years ago thinking about this, and feeling how apt it was that my parents chose this name for me, as my personality could be pretty well described by that Audrey Hepburn quote: "I was born with an enormous need for affection, and a terrible desire to give it." People categorized me (and I accepted it) as kind/loving/tender-hearted; I hated violence or conflict, I loved animals and children, I was easily moved when I saw suffering of any kind--I remember crying inconsolably once because an old man on a bicycle pulled up along the bus I was on, and as I watched him cycling precariously with his skinny legs among the big cars and flashing lights of Orchard Road I was suddenly, terribly aware how vulnerable he was, how easily he could be knocked over by one of the cars, how his bicycle didn't have any lights and it was late at night...
Which all sounds very sentimental and sweet, perhaps, (or maybe just a morbid and hyperactive imagination haha) but doesn't actually come under love. Let's be honest. English, though my favourite language and the strength of my being, has some deceptive limitations. We use the word "love" way too easily and too carelessly. When we talk about learning to live out a Christ-like love, we sometimes end up reducing it to a warm fuzzy inborn capacity to be tenderhearted; that sensitivity, that empathy, which is just innate in some people's personalities, right? Well, that's not enough. In fact, it's painfully inadequate.
Peter broke down the process in a way which reminds us how real love--far from being a natural, spontaneous, simple thing--is rather the product of spiritual discipline and maturity, of godliness, the fruit of the Spirit, the labour of studying the Word, of knowing God. It ought to be all those things, granted, but in our fallen world, it just isn't. Our hearts are still in the process, and painfully so, of being transformed.
2 Peter 1: 5-7:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.
Love, from the very overuse of the term and concept, may have been reduced to a deceptively simple concept--or at least a seemingly straightforward one. But in this list we see the progression through other different virtues, finally only culminating with love.
Being able to truly love someone isn't just something that has to do with how nice a personality you were born with, or how nice a person you usually are. It's something we work at. Something incredibly hard to achieve as it's not only a progression but also a culmination of the other aspects of our spiritual life.
Think about why Peter chose each word in the verses above, and why they came in that specific order. We need hope to love, or cynicism and despair and human limitations would kill us. We need to know what perseverance and hard work and self control are, to love. We need to be wanting to obey God, desiring to obey God, actively seeking to obey God. And--I love how mutual affection comes right here, a perfect balance--we need to love the other person as an individual, to understand and embrace who they are, to affirm their strengths even as we recognize their weaknesses.
Here Peter is not describing a condescending generic love for the masses, for the "unworthy lost," for humanity in general but divorced from the actual gritty reality of loving individual, imperfect people.
Remember how Jesus, in all of the hundreds of people He ministered to, never once lost sight of them as individuals, never treated them as just another needy person, just another applicant. He stopped to heal those who would have been passed by and ignored, like the lepers. He affirmed the potential in those who were labeled unworthy, like Zacchaeus. He comforted the outcasts, aware of all their sins, all their struggles.
Are you struggling to forgive someone? Are you trying to love someone, to love wisely and well and selflessly as Christ did? Don't sit there expecting God to magically take away your irritation, and fill you with a warm fuzzy desire to "be nice to them." We can only truly love when the Spirit is working hard within us, when we are dealing with our own sin, when we are seeking God in our everyday life.
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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.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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