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Recently I've been reading The Trellis and the Vine, an old classic by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. It may be old, but for me, reading it for the first time, it was a breath of fresh air in the clarity with which it expressed many of the experiences and observations I had from my personal experience of serving in a church for many years.
Many of us start our Christian life with a Biblical, but admittedly vague, desire to "serve in church". Despite the good desires and motivations we have, we tend to oversimplify it into the concrete actions of helping to move chairs, turning up at events, tithing, and volunteering. But to take these actions as the sum-all of our duties, as an end in itself, is inadequate. All too often it fizzles away into burn-out, discouragement, or a dangerous complacency that hides a deep lack of spiritual growth in our part, which the hum of activity and the feel-good satisfaction of being useful lulls us into not recognizing.
I've had my own fair share of all these, and yet I never really could articulate why, or what was wrong.
It was with great thankfulness that I read the exact same description of what I'd experienced, with an explanation! Feeling like a patient who had finally gotten diagnosed, I pulled out my posted notes (to this day I still can't bring myself to write on books; maybe those awful Hawpar Villa scenes warning about the fate of those who deface books had some subconscious imprint on my pysche) and knew that there would be gems to collect from this book.
The book begins with an introduction of its central analogy: the vine--the actual work of the Gospel growing and changing people; and the trellis--the structures and activities that support it--which are present in a church.
"We will be arguing that structures don't grow ministry any more than trellises grow vines, and that most churches need to make a conscious shift--away from erecting and maintaining structures, and towards growing people who are disciple-making disciples of Christ."
As such, a church's primary focus is always its people. Its ministries should be built around them--to meet their needs and utilize their strengths.
This thought, simple and obvious though it may be, should immediately make us re-examine our motivations and reasons for running each of the programs in our church. Are we having them simply because it feels right, because we have a hazy idea that the more "happening" and lively our church bulletin is, the more fruitful and impressive it seems?
"The growth of the gospel happens in the lives of people, not in the structures of my church."
This sentence stated it very clearly. For me, it was a huge encouragement, because we tend to measure growth and success by concrete, external improvement in our structures--more programs, more people turning up, a big congregation, a church building etc. Coming from a small church that has struggled with ups and downs, fluctuating congregation size, the only constant being the same persistent problems of manpower shortage, it's easy to compare ourselves to where we were five years ago and feel as if we haven't made any "real" progress.
Yet that's not true. There is quiet proof all around me of the lives that have been changed, the individuals that have grown spiritually, the people whose hearts have been transformed. Even in myself, having been nurtured and shepherded in this church all these years. And that is the important part, the real progress, the vine work.
As such, our attitude to people should be "not as cogs in our wheels, resources for our projects, but as individuals each at their own stage of spiritual growth." The church's role, then, is to be the trellis supporting their spiritual growth, training them to become stronger, more fruitful, to branch out.
What does training mean? In contrast to the Bible-college-seminary academic connotations we have of that word, training is something that every Christian needs. Not just the pastor. Not just the elders and deacons and Bible study group teachers and youth leaders. Every Christian needs training; to produce a "quality of character and behaviour based on the sound doctrine of the Scriptures." This is a brief explanation of what Jesus meant when He called us the 'salt of the world,' the 'light.' Salt and light, by their very essence, by their very presence. Who we are, and how that influences how we live our everyday.
Not just the few hours we spend in church on Sunday; in contrast, those few hours are supposed to help guide and teach us how to live our lives the rest of the week.
This kind of training, though it certainly requires focused study of the Word, is also "inescapably relational." We can take all the Bible study courses and programs, but never apply the head knowledge to our lives, if we don't have it modelled for us, if we don't see and struggle through the messy process of applying it.
Just these two foundational concepts already put into motion a whole train of thought on my part. Reexamining how I see my own service in church. My goals for my spiritual life. My purpose for being in church, "participating." The mindset with which I approach ministry, especially to others. When I'm tempted to complain, get discouraged, or get frustrated with others.
What really should be happening in me, and to those around me? And how am I contributing consciously to that growth?
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continued from part 2
"How much of our busyness is really an effort to prove our worth and escape the sense that there is something very wrong with us?"
Smith goes back to Genesis, to the garden of Eden. He compares Adam and Eve's frantic attempts to cover their nakedness (i.e the consequences of their sin) with leaves, to our attempts to use work as a means of covering up our inadequacy; "one of our most basic inclinations as sinners." God's subsequent curse on labor, the dual labor of work and raising a family, was a curse on "the very things in which men and women would seek to find their worth."
In Smith's words, "the very things we would hope to give us meaning and worth have been cursed so that to be 'fruitful' in them will require extreme effort. You may try to take pride in your work; you may try to find life and meaning in your children, but God isn't going to make it easy for you." And why so, not out of a sadistic desire to punish and thwart us, but in order to help us realize that our rest cannot be found in these things. True rest--resolving the consequences of our sin--dealing with the sense of inadequacy--can only be found in Christ.
"The problem of being morally corrupt and sinful can't be solved by working harder."
Like how Christ's death was the ultimate and final sacrifice needed for sins, making all the Old Testament laws about priests and sacrificing animals void. Once and for all, the sacrifice was made.
As Smith points out, (yay for analyzing diction! literary techniques strike again) Christ sitting at the right hand of God the Father (Hebrews 10:11-14)--not standing, not pacing, not marching--is significant because "His labor for us is perfect and complete."
What a beautiful conclusion. I would have been happy ending on this note but the epilogue--Practical Strategies for Change--was a much-needed discussion of practical application. Now what? Before the hype of feeling you're so enlightened and edified dies off, what are we actually going to do to help ourselves rest more, to work in a more God-fearing way?
Learning to rest enables us to enjoy life and work more, not to mention experience the transformative and comprehensive power of God in our lives. It is not laziness, but learning how to make both our work and rest "acts of faith and worship."
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Recently, I facilitated a study on a small booklet titled Burned Out? by Winston T. Smith. The topic immediately caught my attention because burn-out seems to be one of the increasingly relevant challenges we face in this period of our lives. At a time when we're struggling to juggle new responsibilities and commitments in multiple different areas in life, when our energy and time is always in short supply, burn-out is never too far away. When was the last time you felt overwhelmed, exhausted, stressed out to the brink of tears? When was the last time you wanted to just throw everything aside and sleep for days?
This booklet was short, refreshingly simple, and probingly insightful with some of its questions. I felt it helped me examine myself and discover some realizations, convictions, and applications.
The 4th Commandment to keep the Sabbath is also understood as God's command to us on the importance of rest, a concept most Christians are already familiar with. However, Smith probes further into the greater consequences of this commandment. Realizing that God's creation of the world was not a exertion that He needed the Sabbath to physically recover from, but rather an effortless display of His power, meant that the first Sabbath functioned more as a dedicated day of appreciating and declaring the sovereignty and power of God. "And God saw that it was good." As such, when we keep the Sabbath--or when we rest as God intended us to--we are living out an active trust in God, demonstrating our belief that He is in control of our lives and our world. Rest is not just a necessary but regrettable concession to our human frailty. When we rest, we are not just taking care of our bodies; we are proclaiming His sovereignty.
Secondly, rest also works (pun unintended) as a means for us to experience God's providence, abundant blessings, and the freedom He gives to us. Smith quotes the sabbatical year in Leviticus, where the Israelites were commanded not to plant anything every seventh year, letting the ground rest. God promised to provide for His people through this year by blessing their fields abundantly in the sixth year, so that they would harvest enough food to last them through three years: the sixth year, the seventh of rest, and the eighth year when they resumed planting, before the harvest was ready. Without the seventh year of rest, the Israelites would not have the chance to experience how abundantly--even miraculously--God could provide for them; to witness His power. It also helped to disrupt an increasingly blind devotion to their work or materialism, creating a sense of balance and perspective.
Here, Smith again draws from the laws in Leviticus. The Jubilee year, every 50th year, was another example of rest imposed by God in which slaves were freed, property was restored, and debts were cancelled. Smith foregrounds the correlation between rest and freedom in the Jubilee year. God's command for us to rest has also to do with the freedom we are given to enjoy in Him: "the focus and purpose of all of our labour, ultimately, is to serve Him. No other person or institution may own our allegiance; any other allegiance is ultimately slavery."
And though this may sound strong, think about it. If we're giving almost 24/7 of our time to our job, making decisions based on fear, insecurity, guilt, and pressure, feeling helpless about our inability to have more time for church, for others, for ourselves--it is a kind of slavery, isn't it? Feeling like we don't have much say in how we spend our time, or how we live our life, because work? (or exams etc)
According to Smith, how we observe God's command to rest--or whether we keep it at all--reflects our allegiance: what controls our world, who we serve, and whether we live as a slave or in God's freedom.
part 1; to be continued
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We all know that besides regular time spent in the Bible itself (quote Charles Spurgeon's "Visit many good books, but live in the Bible") it's important to read other helpful Christian books to grow spiritually. Whether this means the classics like Augustine's Confessions, theology like John Calvin's Institutes, respected giants like J.C. Ryle, Matthew Henry, Spurgeon, or more contemporary best-sellers like John Piper, Timothy Keller etc--there are plenty of choices.
Too many, in fact. It can get overwhelming just trying to pick one--let alone the real challenge of actually reading it. All too often we end up collating a pile of to-reads, only for them to stay on our shelf or bedside table like decorations.
How do we help ourselves persevere in this good desire to grow our minds, in cultivating the habit of reading?
As someone who's always been reading--story books as a kid, literature as a uni student, and now as a writer seeking inspiration and improvement--here are a few tips that have helped me in my own attempts at reading spiritual books; a similar, but significantly different type of reading.
1. Find a book you're excited about. I can't stress this enough. In uni, professors would title-drop nonchalantly every lecture, and anxious students would write down all the titles and try vainly to binge-read everything. This was not only actually impossible, but it really spoilt your whole experience of the book. Instead of enjoying/savouring/thinking through it, you're rushing madly through it, trying to speed-read at the speed of light while all the other titles on your Must Read List hover threateningly in the back of your mind. In the end, you've finished it, congratulations, but what was the point? We open the book, only with the goal of being able to close it. As Mark Twain cheekily remarked, "A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read."
True, that was just my experience in uni studying literature; but strangely enough, there's much the same attitude when it comes to spiritual books. This time, instead of the motivation of seeming educated/knowledgeable, there's the additional pressure of a moral aspect, since it's the Right Thing to Do. On par with Eat Your Vegetables and other unpleasant but unarguable truths.
Too often, you have a truckload of Good Christian Book titles thrown at you--you MUST read this, you HAVE to read this. The problem is not that they aren't good. The problem is that there are simply too many. And if you take the same, dutiful approach--try to swallow as many as you can, as quickly as possible--you miss out on so much that they have to offer.
Having done this myself as a young Christian, I can personally attest that no matter how many Good Christian Book titles you cross off your list in this mindset--and no matter how fast/efficiently--it hardly benefits you. To this day I barely remember anything I read during that anaconda binge period, other than that it was exhausting and unenjoyable. Because, despite the brief flush of fulfilment after finishing each book, the list never ends. If you read only to have read, you quickly get discouraged when you realize how many more books there are out there. Always having more good books than you can read becomes--instead of an exciting blessing, as it should be--a curse.
Don't just settle for a book which everyone tells you you have to read. Pick one on a topic that you're genuinely interested and want to grow in.
Pick one that is accessible for you to read--if the language is too old-fashioned, there are too many new words, the writing style is hard to understand--don't force yourself. Those things come with time. As you grow as a reader, expand your vocabulary and comfort zone, you'll find yourself able to increasingly appreciate and understand a more diverse range of books and writing styles.
But for now, as someone trying to start the habit of reading spiritual books, there's no need to kill yourself.
2. Find regular times in your schedule to read. Whether this means once a week on Sunday, everyday before bed, or simply keeping the book in your bag for those random pockets of time throughout the day, consciously find times in your normal schedule where you can read.
Don't leave the book on your shelf "for when I have time." Trust me, time will not come to you. Or when it does, picking up that book is not going to be what's foremost in your mind. Let's be honest--it can hardly compete with the next episode of your favourite show, that cute cat video, or swiping through your friends' Instagram stories.
See what works for you. Personally, reading on public transport has been great for me; I find I focus better, since I'm a "captive audience." My mind doesn't get sidetracked by things which need to be done, because hey, I'm (passively) doing something necessary right now, after all. It's a good way to "redeem the time" as well; since I would probably be on my phone or falling asleep otherwise.
3. Set realistic goals, especially in the beginning. Quality over quantity, sustainability over efficiency. This is not a Guinness World Record competition. Remember that your ultimate goal is to develop a habit of reading.
Don't have unrealistic expectations, whether on how soon you're going to finish this book, or how much you read each time. For some, maybe this means reading one chapter each time. Some may start with just several paragraphs. It may not be the best idea to push yourself as far as you can go each time, either (unless you're genuinely excited about reading more, in which case, praise the Lord!)
4. Mark quotes which spoke to you, or which were crucial in helping you understand the main thrust of the book. It's too time-consuming to make notes on every book you read, but simply marking key lines or ideas can make a huge difference--both right now as you're in the process of processing information, and in the future when you look back trying to remember.
My mom has a habit of writing in the margins, underlining sentences, and summarizing certain paragraphs. I like to stick post-its under important lines, with my scribbled comments on them. For especially significant quotes that I really liked, I might copy them into a "Quote Book" I keep.
Often--usually years later--you realize that certain key concepts or thoughts, contained in those quotes, were your main takeaways from that particular book.
5. Share what you learnt--humbly, with the intent to encourage. When we've fulfilled our goal of "having read", it's all too easy to let pride take over. We (naturally) feel a sense of accomplishment at having succeeded--having "finished" the book. And usually, if we understood it at all, we can't wait to tell others about it! This is a good thing, yes. But it slips very easily into another opportunity to modestly flaunt (what a paradox) our discipline, our knowledge, and most of all our superior spirituality.
We need to ask ourselves, what is the real motivation behind my sharing? Am I wanting everyone to know I accomplished this, seeking for admiration and approval? Am I desiring to appear superior for my discipline, piousness, or learnedness?
Instead, do I want to encourage others to start their own attempts at reading spiritual books? Do I want to encourage them with what I have learnt from this book, or from my own experience of persevering and benefitting from the habit of reading spiritual books?
Granted, this is a fine line. One which only we ourselves will be able to discern, and not all the time at that. It will be hard, and probably unwise, for others to try to discern this for us; which is why we need to watch our own hearts.
Developing the habit of reading is a long-term process (as the term habit should imply.) For people of our (very visual and multi-media) generation, it's retraining our appetites and mental stamina. It's going to take time. It's going to take consistent, patient, intentional engagement.
Like slow-release whole grains vs quick-release processed sugars--we're used to having things summarized, processed, distilled for us so that we can understand it as quickly and effortlessly as possible. Reading, however, requires an active process on the reader's part. We're developing a taste for something which requires us to purposefully involve our thoughts and imagination before we can understand, engage, and benefit. A perfect application, in this case, of Romans 12:2--Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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