Student life as a young Christian can be one of the most bewildering and challenging periods of your life.
There are so many new things--challenges, mostly--clamouring for your attention. Uncertainties, ambitions, all the enjoyments of life; and often, so many priorities you haven't quite sorted out for yourself, or at least in application, yet.
Add on top of this all these challenges in a spiritual aspect, and overwhelming would be a good summary.
(Of course, this has a point. Youth is the best time for facing challenges creatively and courageously, rising to meet them with energy, spirit, and hopefulness. Though to be frank I don't think most young people feel exactly brimming over with energy, spirit, and hopefulness. More like ceaselessly dog paddling just out of your depth, your toes grazing the pool bottom every now and then giving you a fleeting sense of stability; other times your whole head goes underwater and the chlorine stings the inside of your nose.)
At this point in life, whether it's angsty teenagers or young adults struggling to adapt to the label 'young adults,' life and maturity largely boils down to navigating that fine balance between our often conflicting desires to be independent, and to be dependent.
(At least, from my own personal experience; a lot of the stress I experience stems from managing priorities. Fellow young adults, please correct me if I'm generalizing.)
Whichever one applies most in your case. Maybe that means being emotionally and psychologically strong. Or financially independent. Or being able to handle all the stuff that life throws at you without feeling stressed or lost (read: impossible.) We look to adults/older Christians both as role models, as people who had successfully survived/navigated this period of life and more or less (at least comparatively) seem to have found their own feet and a measure of stability and strength--spiritual or otherwise. At the same time, we struggle how exactly to define our relationship to adults, wanting to not have to depend on them, yet simultaneously still needing some guidance and help in our goal to achieve the sense of stability and security we associate with them.
This explains why, though it certainly shows love and care for your child if you cover them with concern and pre-empt their every need, it also reaffirms your child's awareness of how dependent that makes them, and simultaneously reaffirms their desire to be independent. We want ultimately to be treated as equals, but we're still vulnerable enough to need some TLC now and then. If you keep that paradox in mind, you won't feel so confused or resentful why we respond sometimes in the ways we do, and you'll be more able to give us the help we need. And forgive us, when we react ungratefully or ungraciously or just plain incomprehensibly. Or realize that perhaps the ways you thought you were helping us might be backfiring, despite your good intentions.
Whether you're a parent trying to care for the spiritual life and wellbeing of your child, or a kind soul reaching out to students in your church/life, here are some ways that I've personally found encouraging and helpful in my own time as a student.
1. Care for their physical needs.
This may mean little care packs of study snacks, oranges to help ward off colds and flus, herbal soup to boost focus during those all-nighters, buying them their favourite coffee, providing a quiet place to study, or a ride back to save on travelling time. Be creative with the gifts and resources God has given you. As a student, dollars matter so much. Food is vastly important.
2. Communicate and pray faithfully for them. Keep track of the big challenges in their lives so you can support them during those critical times, whether it's finals or waiting for results to be out, or knowing when they're stuck in a nightmarish group project with horrible team members. Let them know you're available when they need to talk, and be sensitive to gage when they do need help. Text them short, simple encouragements that don't require lengthy answers in reply. I remember feeling almost a sense of dread having to muster up the time and energy to give a detailed update on myself, when it wasn't a good time. Is this just an introvert thing? I think not.
On communication: Communication is a two-way thing. It's unfortunate, but just because you want us to confide in you doesn't automatically mean we will be as effusive and appreciative as you might think we ought to be. We may have inhibitions about opening up to adults, or fears on how you might judge us, or simply not feel ready to make ourselves vulnerable. And we've probably all had bad experiences/memories of condescending adults. Children get the worst of this, I'm telling you. Have you heard the way some adults talk to kids? Even I cringe. The worst part about opening up to someone is when they leap to conclusions and assume that they know exactly what it is, and how we should resolve it, full of I-am-older-and-more-experienced-than-you-so-I-automatically-know-better. And we creep away even more confused, unsettled, wondering if we were arrogant to dare to think otherwise, and mentally vowing never to expose ourselves to this kind of situation again. As with any other relationships, don't come to communication and interaction with a sense of entitlement, which usually arises when our motivation is dutifulness rather than sincere love and respect. I'm guilty of it myself!
3. Help us by giving us the perspective we often are too near-sighted to see. This is one of the great benefits of being older--you have a much more mature and far-sighted perspective of decisions, priorities, and events. Without downplaying and dismissing the emotional and psychological significance of things which seem to be the end of the world to us, help us to see an alternative, that life doesn't have to go exactly as we think it has to, or other people tell us it has to, in order to live a happy and productive life that glorifies God.
Or, help us to have more balanced experience and perspective on life. Help remind us that life isn't all about grades, success, (add in word of choice) but that simple things like cooking your own food, playing with children, sweating it out over sports, laughing with friends, a bunch of flowers, beautiful music, and a walk outside remind us why we were created, and by Whom.
4. Take an interest in our friends, the people in our lives, what we feel is important.
5. Encourage us by affirming our growth, abilities, and gifts. Constantly being made aware of our limitations and shortcomings, we deal with insecurity, feeling incompetent, internal and external expectations for ourselves, criticism--ah, I won't go further, it sounds like a pity party; I've written on the pressures of growing older elsewhere.
Encouragement goes a long way. Especially at this time when we're still discovering who we are, or who we want to be. When we're struggling to do everything required of us and be more, be better than who we were yesterday.
Most of all, God bless you for your kindness in wanting to help us during this bewildering and challenging, if fulfilling time of life. I saw a quote once which I've been trying to live out since, and which I think aptly sums up much of the thoughts in this post: be who you needed when you were younger.
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.
There are acquaintances, (a term I think we ought to use more, without fear or embarrassment) there are friends (a term I think we use too carelessly, until we sometimes forget what it's supposed to mean) and there are the very special Chosen Few, the people we feel most comfortable around, the people we would choose to be with us if we were marooned on a desert island. That is, unless you're one of those pragmatic people considering cannibalism.
Let me explain.
Acquaintances is an old-fashioned word that has dropped out of use, but which I think is a more honest and helpful term than the all-inclusive, vague 'friend,' which has reached the same level of meaninglessness as 'thing' and 'dude.' Growing up, I remember being very particular about how I used these words (and probably sounding incredibly stuck up without meaning to) because I had unfortunately read Anne of Green Gables and been influenced on the full significance of the word 'friend,' 'bosom friend' to use the exact phrase. I insisted that the kids I played with at the playground weren't my 'friends,' they were just acquaintances. Because we didn't particularly like each other. We just needed enough people so we could play and have fun. Whether it was you, or him, or someone new, it didn't really matter. Could you run fast? Were you a poor loser? That was all the information that really mattered. If we never saw each other again we wouldn't miss each other, and we could mutually acknowledge this frankly without hard feelings on either side.
I feel it's kind of a pity that we use the word friend so generically now. Anyone we know the names of immediately gets classified as a friend, because we're embarrassed to admit we're not close...
...which makes no sense. Life would be a lot simpler if everyone was fine with being honest. And--more importantly--I think we would be a lot less confused and insecure about the whole concept of friendship, and better equipped to build real, satisfying friendships. I could bring up the outdated but still applicable example of Facebook 'friends,' but I think we've all heard that rehashed as proof of the evils of social media and the hopeless state of the next generation (us) so, no.
This was an idea covered in Jerry and Mary White's book, To Be a Friend. It wasn't exactly a book I would have picked up to read but it turned out to be thought-provoking, raising many issues on the whole concept of friendship and its abstract, inconsistent, sometimes confused application in my life. For example, in chapter 3, they examined different types of friendships, from acquaintances to casual/close/best friends. And as the book unfolded its discussion of what friendship entailed, and how it should be cultivated, the underlying factor beneath it all became clearer and clearer, the difference between acquaintances and friends: purposefulness.
Not that this is a radical idea. But I think what stood out was that this idea of purposefulness encompasses more than simply "making time for each other," which is what we tend to reduce it to. Yeah, friendships aren't static--we have to make time for them! And we leave it at that. We squeeze out a space in our schedule for one meal together and then think we've done our share. I liked how, while dealing with the need for purposefulness, To Be a Friend didn't get sucked into the overly simplistic make time=friendship equation, and gave equal coverage to other aspects.
To purposefully build friendships required more than just time together: energy and effort, vulnerability, and even "unanticipated and unplanned costs," which was an additional category I didn't expect. Under "energy and effort," they included the "freedom to say no": "Every relationship requires energy and effort, of which we have limited amounts. We cannot do everything and respond to everyone...we need to be intentional in [friendship's] development and priority. This is particularly true for the ten to twenty close relationships [an estimate] that are current and active in our lives right now."
To me, this was a wake-up call for the need to prioritize the input I'd been previously unthinkingly giving to whichever friendship called most loudly for at the moment. It is so easy to live life prioritizing the urgent rather than the important. My grandparents, for example. They seem to be always available, patiently waiting for my schedule to accommodate them, compared to friends whom it's harder to spend time with, who have exams and limited holidays, who seem much more elusive and urgent, as result, to 'catch.' And the grands get pushed to the back burner.
It was a good and sobering realization to ask myself, what are the ten to twenty close relationships in my life right now, which I value the most--and am I actually making a correlating effort at actively building those relationships?
A great insight for introverts like me was the next paragraph: "Keep in mind that some relationships build you up and others drain you. The relationships that give us great pleasure take little energy and effort to develop. The ones that drain us have a higher cost, but our commitment to the friendship may draw us to pay for the price."
It was a great relief to be able to admit without feeling guilt, that that are such things as "high-maintenance" friendships, and that you can only take so many, or so much of one, before the relationship becomes unhealthy and perhaps even sours as result. Know your limits, for your own sake as well as your friends'. The Whites gave an example of some friends whose understanding of this ensures balance: "We have friends who are quick to respond to the needs of others. When they are depleted of energy, they announce, 'We're cancelling the weekend!' Without guilt, they wipe the calendar clean for a few days to restore their energy. They wisely recognize they cannot help others if they are exhausted. They make it a priority to guard their health so they have more to give to others."
This highlights how another aspect of purposeful friendship, I realized, is considering each friendship within the context of the circle of people in your life--whether that means different stages of priority, or simply stewarding the time and energy you have to invest in each, without feeling guilty or embarrassed about doing so. After all, one of the requirements for a strong friendship is honesty; and that starts with being honest with yourself.
I've been thinking more and more about friendship as I get older, as I balance old friendships with new ones, maintain different sorts of friendships. It's not enough to just be aimlessly, passively friendly, responding to whichever friendship is most proactive or demanding. Time is short and there are, there will be, more and more people in your life. Some will fade out if you don't hold onto them. Some will come in whether or not you're ready for them, like "divine interruptions" to use Elisabeth Elliot's phrase. Some are perhaps only there for this season of life.
With a one-size-fits-all, first-come-first-served mentality to friendship, you swing between feeling burnt out and yet vaguely dissatisfied. Guilty for not doing enough or keeping up with certain people, or for saying no. Awkward when you realize the generic "friends" label disguises a whole lot of uncomfortable disjuncts, from how well you actually know the person and how much you actually like each other's company, to wondering if you ought to like So-and-So's Instagram posts even though you hardly know anything about them (still learning the ropes for social media etiquette as you can see. I ought to have been born in the previous generation.)
Unstable, to summarize. The paradox of feeling exhausted from having "too many friends", yet discontented because you feel you "don't have real friends," which seems to be a common sentiment from what I hear. I think purposefulness has a lot to do with this. And to be honest, purposefulness is HARD. First of all you need time (yes, that word's coming up again in this post) to be purposeful. You don't just read an article and have your life automatically transformed (like listening to a sermon; sounds familiar?) You need to sit down and evaluate what areas you need to be more purposeful in, and how--practically, concretely--you're going to make that happen. You're going to need focus and perseverance, and maybe even courage. And even if this takes shape during your morning commute to work, and looks like nothing more than a scribbled memo on your phone notes, in order to tackle it in the first place there must have been mental and emotional energy as well.
Where we are now, where entertainment and consumerism encourage passivity, and social media cultivates spontaneity, it's hard to be purposeful. Perhaps it's the first sacrifice we make for our friends, for better friendships, and for ourselves, as stewards with limitations of time, energy, and emotional capacity.
In my living room, there is a beautiful piece of art. (Which doesn't say much, as there are many beautiful artworks by my sister all over the house. I am proud to say that without being an art connoisseur, I have enjoyed all her artwork so far with only one exception, which was a particularly obnoxious object called Worm Baby. Not a horror movie person; that Thing was. I think the name is graphic enough to suffice without description.)
This particular one, however, is 1 Corinthians 13 in Chinese calligraphy, framed in white, and without a backing so it looks like it's floating against the wall. It was done by a friend's father, given to my dad as a present, and one of my favourite things about it is that every time the word 'love' appears, it's written in a different way. I knew there was 'old' and 'new' Chinese script, but it's fascinating to see how many different legit ways the same word can be written, and still read as such.
To me, that reinforces how love is in essence so simple and universal, and yet in application so myriad.
All those Facebook quizzes on What is Your Love Language, and Asian Parents humour videos; and #growingupwithsiblings, for example.
Search the Scriptures challenged me to read 1 Corinthians 13 as 15 ways of describing love, and then summarize and apply it. 15 ways to love. Boiled down to what is most directly, personally applicable to your life. Which is not easy, if you take a look at those verses.
Love suffers long and is kind;
love does not envy;
love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;
does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;
does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
The first three times I read them through I felt hopeless: "okay, I need them all, every single one of them--I'm just adding a growing number of ticks at the end of each line! How to pick the most important one, or summarize all of this??" But that's precisely why--it breaks down an otherwise overwhelming or abstract list into specific, personal, and most of all, applicable articles.
I finally decided the best approach was to describe it as two general categories:
1. longsuffering /patience /fortitude
All these terms, at least for me, translate to having a higher threshold of forbearance when things don't go your way, by cultivating humility and sincere love and concern for others. This is really difficult for someone who thinks there's a specific format even for hanging up the laundry. I mean, obviously my way is the best, right? Usually, I close my eyes as much as possible whenever someone helps me, (I'm tempted to write, 'attempts to help'!) but that's where the second part comes in. Not merely for the sake of avoiding a petty quarrel over socks and underwear, but out of greater humility; ok, maybe my way isn't flawless after all, you do have a point about bedsheets--
--and love for others; I appreciate you wanting to help me, and I want to remember this could be a fun and pleasant opportunity for us to work together IF ONLY I CAN STOP NOTICING HOW YOU'RE DROPPING CLEAN LAUNDRY ON THE FLOOR AND NOT PUTTING THE PEGS INTO THE BASKET but yeah, those don't really matter in the big picture, do they? *sweats*
In how you interact with and care for others. To be interested in them--not how they reflect upon or affect you or compare to you (which may sound immature and and at the level of teenage friendship problems, but which extends even to parent-child relationships--both ways, at that.) To be less self-conscious; which, as has been so rightly pointed out, is true humility--not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. So your love for others is more genuine. Again, this is challenging in a culture where we are constantly aware of how we look, how others see us, how others reflect upon us; where we zoom in on group pics to see ourselves first, where there are people it's uncool to be friends with, where we squirm when certain people comment on our Facebook page or spoil our feed.
I feel disappointed with myself when I think about how flimsy my love for others is, how it hovers so precariously upon my threshold of forbearance, and how much selfishness is mixed up in it. I remember one quote from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov which really struck me: "The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular."
It's easy to feel a benevolent, if vague and undemanding, compassion and love for others; you feel soulfully convinced that you, too, have a heart to end world hunger or smooth fevered brows and generally be the next Mother Teresa;
but when it comes down to everyday life, to individuals, to toothpaste tubes not rolled neatly, to hairs on the floor you just swept, to unmade beds and apologies and grumpiness and yes, the right way to hang out laundry--we need the Spirit to teach us how to love.
We need Him Who loved us first, and enabled us to love in turn...
That phone call you're dreading. Forgetting someone's name when they remember yours. Clearing the sink hole (you wouldn't believe how much foul-smelling gunk there is in there.) Spilling Ribena on someone's beautiful white shirt. Having to tell your friend that the goldfish you so confidently offered to babysit while they were on holiday died on you almost immediately.
Up there along with all these other squirm-inducers is the word 'witnessing.'
As Christians we often talk about how important a Christian witness is, as a church, as an individual, to your non believing friends and family etc...
But perhaps for you--as for me--that doesn't exactly equate to passing out tracts on the street and sharing your testimony every day. I'm afraid the reality of being a Christian witness, for most Christians, doesn't mean simply sharing the gospel. Sometimes you're not allowed to. Sometimes there's too much hostility or sensitivity. Sometimes it just isn't the right opportunity. Sometimes your relationship or friendship just isn't at that level yet when it can be discerned as sincerity instead of a threat.
And that's okay. Since we strive to be like Christ in all areas of our life--when we're in church singing hymns, when we're eating out, when we're on the bus, when we're in a meeting, when we're in our pajamas watching our favourite TV show...
One of the best ways you can witness is by not being afraid to apologize.
An apology is a rare phenemonem now. Remember as kids how your parent would drag you over to that annoying kid and watch you sternly until you ground out a "sorry"? Insincere much? Well, adults don't even do that. Even insincere apologies are rare. People prefer to pretend they've forgotten about it, or ignore what happened. (I'm not talking about people who chronically and automatically apologize for everything, whether it's cold coffee or you didn't like their shirt colour or that you didn't find that joke as funny as they did...that extreme warrants another whole post for itself.)
Situations where real apologies are needed, when someone has offended or hurt someone, when the two of you are strained and uncomfortable, if not downright hostile, around each other.
If--when everyone around you says it's okay, just pretend nothing happened, maybe she didn't hear you, anyway he's said nasty things about you too, who cares what they feel--you can bring yourself to apologize with courage and honesty and humility, with sincerity and kindness, showing grace where you didn't have to, showing humility when you did wrong, showing kindness when you could have responded with coldness--you have, just for that moment, taken others aback by demonstrating that there is an alternative, in Christ's love. In Christ's example.
I remember I first started thinking seriously about what it meant to be Christian because of the witness of my parents in their everyday, normal home life with us. Doctrine I knew in heaps. I thought I knew every single Bible story. I'd memorized the Shorter Catechism, okay (at one point, I could recite it so fast it almost sounded like rapping.) But what really made an impact on me wasn't so much all the good decisions, the wise words, the love from my parents, as when they apologized. When they had made a mistake, they apologized to us. When they lost their temper, they apologized. The mistake itself wasn't so important--as I got older, I realized that yes--drumroll--even parents made mistakes! The first stage of growing up.
But they were able to apologize. Humbly and honestly, without making excuses or grudging the apology, simply admitting they had done wrong and needed to be forgiven. This was something I couldn't have imagined bringing myself to do, what more if I put myself in their shoes as the parent, as the authority figure; didn't it, humanly speaking, logically speaking, undermine everything they'd been working for--earning their children's respect and obedience, showing their wisdom and authority--?
This was something I couldn't understand how they could bring themselves to do. Heck, as a teenager apologizing was something you hated having to do, and didn't see other people do. It was literally telling the world that you weren't the perfect image you tried so hard to convince others you were. That stuff hurt. Not in a glamorous way either--it hurt in the most embarrassing, unattractive way. I remember brainstorming glamorous injuries for my lead characters in so many of my stories; broken collarbones were a favourite, they were non-fatal and yet impressive enough (sorry nurses, I know I'm probably being idiotically ignorant and unrealistic here.) Well, apologizing was like giving your lead character diarrhoea in the middle of the climax. There is nothing glamorous and everything to dislike about it.
And that, I slowly realized, was what dying to yourself meant. The Bible kept using that phrase and I always felt it a bit extreme, like those Taiwanese soap operas where every slap or punch or kick is replayed five times from different angles, in slow-mo...when you try to convince your mom it's bad enough to warrant skipping school for the day--"I feel like I'm dying! Serious, mom! "
Apologizing in today's culture--where appearances are so important, where insecurity and the pursuit of glamour and popularity are so prevalent--is like dying. Shooting yourself in the foot, as some worldly-wise people would doubtless say. "You're just showing that you're soft, and that they can treat you like a doormat! Even if you did make some mistakes, so did they, and if you apologize, they're going to assume it means you're accepting responsibility for everything, and they'll happily treat you as if you're responsible for their mistakes--they're never going to face up to what they did wrong--"
But that's why it can make all the more impact. I saw this (below) on Pinterest and found it very moving for that same reason. It's so rare when someone is brave enough to apologize, humbly and honestly and sincerely. Especially if you are put in a position where one's 'face' is important. The next time you face an opportunity to apologize, don't just forget conveniently about it or get away with a cup of coffee or an awkward shoulder pat. It feels like dying, but as John 12:24 reminds us, death can be the start of something new--something far greater--something far more alive.
The idea that the church reflects and witnesses for God to the world is something you probably hear in church at least eight times a year.
However, focusing too much on this may not--actually--be the best way to bring people to Christ.
Insert standard disclaimer--please don't automatically jump to the conclusion that I'm advocating the other extreme; that we ought to dissolve our churches and focus only on our own spiritual lives, reject the idea that the communal group identity of a church is at all important to being a Christian.
Of course it is.
Of course it is.
(I say that twice in case you blinked.)
Perhaps for some of you this isn't the case. Maybe in your churches now you're struggling with the opposite challenge, where people are too self-centred and unwilling to reach out, unwilling to love. If so that definitely is a bad witness, leading people to form a wrong idea of the God we profess to worship and live by (unfortunately don't we all misrepresent Him at one time or another?) and in that case you may not need to read this post at all in case you get the wrong idea, and take my thought out of context.
But the basic fact is that faith is a personal thing. It's not something that we can grow in someone, or that can spillover from others, nice as that would be; if that were the case there would be no heartbreak for Christian parents whose children have grown up to reject their parents' beliefs. Faith is something essentially personal, and essentially between God and the soul through Christ. There are no other interceders or parties concerned. If someone's professing faith depends on how kind you are to that person, if you think that you being able to remember everyone's birthdays means they will keep coming to church, if how bonded the youth group is is a direct correlation to how close they are to salvation, stop and think. When did salvation become so heavily dependent on our social interactions? As if the Holy Spirit took a backseat in His all-important work, and we somehow became His substitutes, trying to use niceness to convict and move hearts.
The witness which the love of God shining through a Christian can be to someone who does not believe is surely, in a world like this, truly beautiful, truly a glimpse that there is an ideal we've fallen short of, but an ideal that mercifully still exists in heaven. I have seen that in other lives. I have experienced it myself, and know how it helped me before and after becoming a Christian. And I believe that it is the very high, but inexpressibly beautiful calling of all Christians, to love. All the more beautiful for the contrast that it makes to the headlines we wake up to everyday, to the evil and hatred and incredible selfishness and cruelty we see in ourselves and others.
But when this becomes out focus, when we unconsciously equate 'being nice to people = bringing them closer to professing faith' then we've messed ourselves up. We set traps for ourselves. Thinking we are giving and caring unconditionally as Christ would have us, but actually building up expectations or a sense of entitlement (very naturally! aren't all other human relationships wired like this after all?) which cause us to recoil in hurt and anger when things don't turn out as we thought. When they are never able to believe, to see their need, to repent. When they hurt us. When they leave. When they backslide.
And we get angry. Struggle with resentment and bitterness, confused and bewildered where all those black emotions came from when we thought we'd been busying ourselves doing what was right. It becomes so easy to fling the blame on them, to accuse them of ungratefulness or--worse--hard-heartedness. I tried so hard, I did so much...it must be your fault.
And there it goes. Our nice image of a unified loving church, 'so close' to the vision of the body working in perfect harmony and beauty under its glorious Head in 1 Corinthians. Disillusion and cynicism follow the hurt and bitterness, maybe. Or long festering grudges we know we shouldn't have, but have grown so close to our hearts and egos that we can't bear to cut them out, knowing we have to radically rebuild ourselves if we do.
I heard once of someone who lamented, exactly with this attitude, about longtime visitors who had had 'years of meals with us but they still haven't believed in Christ!' I find this attitude in myself as well when I let myself get consumed by the enslaving assumptions that Christianity=niceness and being nice to people=part of the process of them becoming Christian. If this kind of attitude is present in how you look at or think of someone today, perhaps we need to stop being so unthinkingly 'nice and kind', and instead reconsider why we think it's so important to be 'nice and kind' in the first place.
In 2014 I wrote on this idea, if from a different angle, the idea that Christians = nice people.
It's worth taking a look at again, if I may say so, because it gives additional perspective to the same idea. (Looking back at that article I'm actually rather amazed I wrote it at all, and how I was bold--or thoughtless--enough to think I could discuss such a sensitive and tricky topic without being misunderstood and lashed out at! After all, I very nearly didn't post this, wondering if I really could explain and express myself clearly enough to avoid stumbling anyone.)
I hope I'm expressing my thoughts accurately because again, I recognize it may seem disturbing; yet, if you look back at the Bible, should be based on truth.
Likewise, we don't judge other Christians for not caring in the same way we do, or judge ourselves for not caring the way someone else does. All these petty details matter--if we're talking about people and how they respond. They don't if we're talking about God and His eyes which look not as men see, but at the heart--whether our heart, or the hearts of others.
Salvation by faith, not works.
The just shall live by faith.
Not by being nice.
The focus always ought to be Him--the why always ought to be Him. If our focus becomes 'so that they will believe', then we are no longer loving selflessly. Even though, and I stress this, it is and should doubtless be our desire that they do believe. But it should not be the underlying reason why. If it is, our actions become manipulations, like it or not. If it is, that explains why we don't actually love disinterestedly, unconditionally, but feel personally hurt and betrayed or offended when things don't work out as we assume they should ('after everything I've done.') If it is, then that explains why we're so shocked and dismayed when it becomes obvious that our church isn't perfect after all, that Christians aren't actually all nice, always nice, to each other or unbelievers.
If it is, then that's why we're so paranoid about preserving the appearance of a perfect church, why we feel a (unnecessary) personal pressure and pain when people don't come to faith or behave a certain way.
If it is, then we've subscribed to a cult of niceness that is most definitely not Christianity, even though Christianity is supposed to revolve around love. Because, though we may have gotten confused, the two are not the same thing.
We love because He first loved us. Not--even--because it can make others love Him.
3. What's the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your family life? (and, I want to add, that probably applies to most other relationships as well)
I found myself thinking about this.
Especially as Chinese New Year approaches, and we are given time with our family and extended family--for better or for worse.
Be all there.
--as Jim Elliott said; Wherever you are, be all there.
This is a whole lot more challenging than it sounds, though it may be just three words.
In this world of multi-tasking, it is so hard to focus. So hard to just listen and do--nothing else.
Nowadays when we listen to music we have a music video to watch, or the miles whizzing by through the windows of a subway; or a dinner to cook, or laundry to fold, or a street that we're crossing, the white paint stripes flashing underfoot like the traffic light above our heads. Going somewhere while we listen, or doing something while we listen, watching something while we listen.
And when we talk, our conversations are often haunted by little ghosts. I mean the ghosts that live in our jeans pockets and hover in our hands and appear with a little ghostly aura of light, to float between us and our friends or transmit their ghostly aura to our faces.
(yes, smart phones)
Talking about Chinese New Year, I gather nowadays it's a common experience to have the ghosts invade your reunion dinner. Sitting around the coffee table and all its glorious spread of new year snacks and tidbits, relatives who haven't seen each other in months if not since the last reunion, you peer doubtfully at each other over lattice work pineapple tart faces and the red lids of love letter tins. A thin trickle of shallow conversation, which easily loses to the cracking of peanut shells and rustle of wrappers. And then out pops one ghost, soon followed by another, and then a whole family of ghosts have their reunion, hovering comfortably around the coffee table.
Unfortunately the ghosts get their reunion more than once a year; we summon them up almost every day. Even our own family or close friends, whom we can't possibly plead shy of talking to, often appear to us through that white glow, and we process their words at the same time as we like a post, scroll expertly down our Instagram feeds, or pin another cute guinea pig photo (guilty as charged.)
We are so skilled at keeping within our comfort zones, and such expert multi-taskers, that we seldom give 100% when we talk or listen.
This is a problem that probably can apply to different types of relationships, but easily to family--because sometimes they're so close we take them for granted--or because sometimes, we don't know them as well as our relationship would suggest.
This year, be all there. Leave the ghosts in your pockets for once.
Psalm 86 verse 11 has a simple but intriguing phrase: Unite my heart to fear your name.
Everything in me resonated with that line when I read it--YES.
Our hearts are complex.
Despite all those cute Awkward Yeti Brain and Heart comics that paint those two organs of ours in a oversimplified, basically oppositional relationship, our hearts are pretty complex just on their own.
We know--or we should know--that our words and actions reflect what is already present in our heart, and that our hearts are the root of whatever behavioural problems or issues we're trying to solve. Our hearts should be what we're addressing in our struggle with sin. The renewal of our hearts is one aspect, and a very significant one, of our sanctification as Christians; in conjunction with the other, equally significant aspect: that of concrete, active decisions to resist sin, which we make every day.
This is basically the jist of that post written more than a year ago (phew.) Now, though, I want to look at another perspective on the relationship between our hearts and our mouths.
Take a look at Psalm 39. I remember being astounded the first time I read this psalm--it was so direct, so straightforward, so honestly personal, I felt that if I looked up I would see the Psalmist materializing in front of me. Heck, I could even hear myself saying these words (though I would probably have phrased everything just a bit less elegantly...)
The heart-mouth relationship is a two-way road. Just as our hearts affect what comes of our mouths, what comes out of our mouths can also affect our hearts. The Psalmist learnt not to encourage the anger and bitterness in his heart by letting his tongue run away expressing it. His response when his heart was 'hot within me' was to 'guard my ways, lest I sin with my tongue.' Obviously, this didn't resolve his anger within--but it was valuable for something else: not exacerbating it. The result? The 'fire burned' still within, yes; but ultimately, it made him turn to God in frustration, where there was hope for a true resolution:
'Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days,
That I may know how frail I am...
...Certainly every man at his best state is but a vapor.
And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You;
Deliver me from all my transgressions...'
If I had had the insight to discern it, I could have learnt this from personal experience. After all, if you're struggling to forgive someone, obviously it won't help if you let all these emotions blast-- it tempts you to feel more aggrieved, to downplay your own wrong, and encourages you in your bitterness, pride, anger, unforgivingness.
If the person you're dumping all these grimy emotions on sympathizes with you, well, how nice for our fallen nature--we already were 100% sure we were in the right; now we're 200% sure. If they don't, you're very likely going to feel even more defensive and aggrieved because they downplay or disregard your feelings. Either way, it doesn't seem a very promising move towards forgiveness and restoration. It's running a nice bathtub for you to wallow in self-pity. And preparing a nice safe equipped with dehumidifiers and a nest of cotton wool for you to carefully cherish your grudge in.
Be careful. Our hearts, after all, are complex. Maybe we have sincere desires to forgive, to be humble, to resist bitterness. But those aren't going to be the only emotions in our messed up hearts.
Those complaining, selfish, arrogant, bitter (and the list goes on, unfortunately) words express what's in our hearts. And they also exacerbate the feelings they stem from.
Of course, we must qualify, as any statement nowadays--especially on the internet--must in order to avoid being grossly misinterpreted, misquoted, and misunderstood. (and sometimes it still happens anyway, but at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you did your best.) Talking, especially in times of emotional crisis, is important.
Of course. I would be the last person who dares to question that, for the unpleasant reason that I often talk too much too fast (they tend to come together.) It's the way we talk, how much we talk, maybe even who we talk to, depending on the context--all highly subjective details that I won't even attempt to address. At any rate, I am not about to bother arguing for something fairly obvious.
Talking about our emotions is important, yes. A not so popular aspect of that, however, is talking about our emotions to the person who evoked them. We're cowards at heart, all of us. If only our problems could be solved by us talking about them to third party sympathizers who are comfortably distanced from the person we're talking about, and we're insured against negative consequences. (yoohoo,Youtube comments.) Actually, a surprising amount of of people problems could be resolved if we were brave and humble enough to honestly confront the person who's causing us unhappiness--confess our own wrong--gently tell them of theirs--and work together for reconciliation. That is, after we've asked God to help us with our complex hearts. To genuinely love and care for the person. To keep our motivations from self-pity and arrogance and just basically being nasty and obnoxious. After all, if prayer reflects our relationships with people, being able to pray for the person who offended you is a good sign that you've made the first move away from prideful self-centeredness, towards forgiveness and humility.
May our hearts be united in the right desires; in humility and a desire to please God.
'...And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You;
Deliver me from all my transgressions.'
Doing Search the Scriptures on the Lord's Prayer made me see prayer in a different perspective--as a mirror.
Really? you think silently at this point. I think she's running out of ideas for this blog.
It isn't as absurd as it may sound, I promise. After all, the type of relationship we have with someone, for example, determines how many times a week we call them--why we call them--what we talk about when we call them--how long our calls are--and even what sort of language we use when we call them. Understandably, then, examining how we pray can function as a mirror that reflects the state of our relationship; either with God, when we pray to Him, or with others, when we pray about them. Our relationship with God is many-faceted, like a--alright, I needn't complete the simile. We relate to Him as children, dependents/creatures, and sinners/debtors, to name the first few that come to my mind. Each facet of our relationship with Him is important, and how we pray should reflect that. In other words, you could say this is the theology behind the ACTS prayer mnemonic. (yes, it took me so many years to see this) Without the corresponding prayer for these different facets, our relationship with Him is in danger of being imbalanced. As children, our prayer should include love, sharing, confiding, asking. As His creatures and dependents, gratitude, praise, and acknowledgement of our need for Him. As sinners and His debtors, confession and repentance...and so on, as you can go into detail somewhere else.
Seeing prayer as a mirror of our relationship with others, however, is a bit more messy and unsettling. That's what happened when I applied this perspective to the different people I was praying for (and the different struggles I had in praying for them--umm please help her with whatever upcoming exams she's going to have...she's having exams right?...ohh I forgot to pray for him AGAIN...err...can I skip this one...I'll pray for that tomorrow...GOD MAKE THIS PERSON STOP BEING SO ANNOYING...)
It helped me to see that I should be praying for the opportunity to get to know this person better.
That the fact I wasn't praying for someone, or kept postponing to, reflected the unacknowledged strain in our relationship.
To realize that surprisingly, even for people I cared deeply about, it was easy to neglect praying for them, revealing in me an underlying carelessness about their spiritual conditions.
And that the first step in dealing with difficult or unlovable people is always to pray for them--instead of conveniently pushing them from my mind, or praying only that God would take away the challenge they presented in my life.
Take a moment to think about your last interaction with someone and see if how you prayed for them--or your failure to do so--affirms the assumed status of your relationship. Chances are they may not correspond as you'd expect. Seeing this disparity has helped me be more aware and critical of my relationships with the people I'm praying for, rocking me in my otherwise comfortable complacency; it's challenged me to pray more honestly, accurately, and humbly.
Your hand, at some point in life--hopefully--has been a guiding hand to someone.
Definitely if there are children in your life. Or young (perhaps I should say, younger) believers who look up to you as a mentor.
Reading Matthew 18:1-10 with Search the Scriptures made me see, for the first time, that our attitude and duty towards young children are similar to those towards young believers. In a sense, you could call them mentoring relationships--friendship based on a tacit understanding that one learns and is guided by the other. Friendships with a great capability for mostly one-sided influence.
How loving Christ's words are in this chapter, and how piercingly aware of the condescension, pride, and carelessness that can warp such mentoring relationships, making them more destructive than nurturing.
Studying Christ's words was a reminder to:
1. Be humble in accepting, appreciating, and learning from them (v 4-5, 10)
Humbly learn from them--the childlike spirit of trustfulness, which is so easily patronised as naivety, is really something incredibly rare, and a great honour to have, in contrast to the cynicism that being street-smart cultivates.
Don't abuse or despise it. No matter how silly it is, don't make them feel foolish for being confiding. No matter how trivial their secret is--or how great a joke it would make--don't betray their trust, or treat it lightly.
(I'm still learning this! I'm afraid my sense of humour is not always very helpful...)
For younger believers--don't feel supercilious over their eagerness, energy, and exuberance. Rejoice with them! And instead of seeing it as an instance of their immaturity, (as we generally do with eager-beavers in any other field) humbly recognize it as a reminder of how far you have fallen away from your first love.
And these are just two of the most obvious areas.
2. Give them respect. See them as individuals. (v10; note the repetition of 'one of' in v 5 and 10!)
As a mentor, respect may not be the first thing you think of giving to your--how shall I say this? mentoree?
And all the more so, we mustn't neglect it.
This could be something as simple as listening, a lesson that could take a whole lifetime to learn.
In William Deresiewicz's book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, he describes what he learnt from reading Mansfield Park--the importance of listening in a friendship:
"Austen...knew that our stories are what make us human, and that listening to someone else's stories--entering into their feelings, validating their experiences--is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity, the sweetest form of usefulness."
This, in my experience of working with children, is entirely and wholly true. You'd be surprised; kids don't actually want you to entertain them so much as they want you just to listen to them. Not just with the engrossed grown-up's spasmodic 'Umm' and 'Really?' but with the same respect, interest, and engagement you would give to another adult.
Even if you're dying to laugh.
3. Be purposeful in loving, guiding, and caring for them. Take your mentorship and relationship with them seriously, just as you would take serving the Lord in more glamorous or 'grown-up' ways. (v 5) You may only have these three kids to teach every Sunday, or that one teenager who confides in you. You are no less significant (and probably more) to them, than if you had twenty.
And as Christ so clearly warns, be careful we do not cause them to stumble. (v 6) As teachers, mentors, and friends, we have been given a great trust.
I need to keep in mind how receptive children are to your approval and criticism, once you have won their love and friendship. A careless comment or impatient remark can make a much bigger impact than you would think on a child who loves and looks up to you.
Similarly, in your relationship to a younger Christian. Be especially careful of imposing your opinions! Having--sadly--done this before with children, I daren't think of the consequences this could have on a spiritual level.
Oh dear, how depressing this is! someone may be saying at this point. All these warnings, as if I needed any more to think and worry about, when I'm just struggling with the time and effort costs of friendship!
Yes, we fall short most of the time. We make mistakes.
But as Jerry and Mary White's book, To Be a Friend, (a helpful and insightful guide on friendship!) notes,
'We can only do this when our lives are being transformed by God.'
And as another comfort to us discouraged souls--God intends friendship to be a two-way blessing.
Even mentoring friendships.
'We gain and we give. We gain what we do not expect or deserve. We give what cannot be bought.'
(To Be a Friend, by Jerry and Mary White)
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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