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Matthew 21:12-1412 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’[a] but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’[b]”
14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
I remember my first introduction to this particular event in the Bible, helpfully illustrated in a children's Bible, one of those big glossy luxe editions where all the folds of the tunics, the feathers of the doves, the shininess of the flying coins, were painstakingly drawn for children like me to pour over for hours. It was with a sense of shock and secret admiration that I realized here was a lesser known, and more conventionally badass, side of Jesus, that challenged the largely passive idea I'd formed of Him. Jesus looked anything but passive flinging those tables over, releasing clouds of fluttering doves, in a reckless whirlwind of action that evoked childhood memories of jumping on sofas, rolling on the ground, screaming at the top of your lungs in wild abandon. Chaos in the midst of manmade order, control, polish, of institutionalized formality.
I have grown up all my life in a small church. We've always struggled with the same challenges--not enough manpower; struggling to maintain the basic logistical work of every Sunday's worship, let alone mission work and outreach work and additional activities. Looking for a pastor. For more Sunday School and Bible Study teachers. For people to help with setting up the worship room every Sunday, with bringing refreshments, with hosting prayer meetings. Dealing with the discouragement of having a scant handful of people turn up for the weekly prayer meetings, watching the numbers dwindle. And the list goes on; many of you can doubtless add to it...
It's easy to wallow in self-pity and discouragement. It's also easy to become overly focused on the tasks that need to be done--just as it would perhaps in a big church. To come up with the most efficient, productive strategy for growth, to race from one activity to another, to outline more SOPs for better organization...
...none of which are wrong, of course, but when they become the main thing we're doing? When we're more preoccupied with running this church (/business/company/startup...) more successfully, more efficiently, more impressively, more productively?
Jesus entered the Temple, a huge impressive tangible symbol of religion as an institution, with all its rites and man-made glamour, with the smooth efficient methods and structure of every successful organization. Read: church services without AV problems or crying babies or embarrassing ringtones; worship where the congregation comes on time, where the preacher is a great speaker with just the right amount of emotional appeal, flawless rhetoric, academic theological references, and anecdotes for that personal touch. Where smiling ushers that look like they were born and bred in aircon and fed on ice cream all their life come swooping effortlessly towards you to escort you to your seat (don't get me wrong, I've nothing against smiling ushers, but I speak from memories of waiting outside the church doors, feeling the sweat gathering on you like a moist second skin, and yourself visibly wilting in the heat even as you clutch a sticky hymnbook and try to look welcoming while melting) Where the venue is beautiful, impressive; modern enough for all the conveniences, yet classic enough to enhance the atmosphere for worship...
So ideal, isn't it? Wouldn't you feel impressed if you attended a church with a service like that? That's the kind of response we'd want our churches to produce on visitors!
My church doesn't even have our own premise; we rent classrooms, like many other small churches in land-scarce Singapore who don't have the funds to purchase and build a venue. Every Sunday we have to drag all our barang (baggage) up from a rickety cupboard and go about the process of converting a messy secondary school classroom with graffiti on chairs, socks and Shakespeare huddled together under desks, and wads of folded paper tucked under uneven table legs, into a place of worship. If I was a preacher I'd probably draw a parallel how, like modern day Abrahams, we are reminded in this way every week how temporary our current state is--aliens in a foreign land; journeying towards a final destination, relying on our faith and purpose rather than a settled place/concrete location for our identity. But I'll spare you the sermon seedling.
From this background, I can easily imagine how, staring up in awe at that beautiful building, you would feel a very man-centric sense of pride and identity--based not so much on God Himself but more on what we have done for Him and how our worship of Him, like culture and language and race and achievements, contributes to our overarching sense of identity and purpose. Not as a faith, in the proper sense of the word, but rather as an accessory. One of many slices in the pie graph of how we define ourselves. Part of community life.
And Jesus resisted this. He resisted the smooth, efficient clock-work structure and system, the successful organization, the institutionalized man-centric idea of God and worship. Deliberately channeling all that was most oppositional to everything the Temple had become--its specific list of what you had to do, to give, to be in the name of worshiping God, converting deeds into spiritual bonus points the way the money changers and dove sellers carried out their business--He became an agent of disruption, as aptly symbolized in how He overturned tables and set the doves free. Can you imagine a more visually effective image than that?
Instead, the blind and the lame entered the Temple, and Jesus healed them. The Temple became a place where real, personal needs were met in a life-changing way, for healing, for joy; "and the children shout[ed] in the Temple courts, Hosanna..."
And after that, the next morning, Jesus comes across the fig tree.
18 Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.
20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
21 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
I've always seen these two events in isolation, and it was the first time I realized they took place one after the other. Search the Scriptures pointed this out, identifying how Jesus's actions addressed the church and what it should be aspiring towards.
As a church, are we busy creating our own idea of what worship should be like? Our own definition of God, which fits nicely into, and in fact relies on the systems and structures we are preoccupied with maintaining? Which, in turn, enable us to present this polished, impressive, seemingly flawless idea of religion--where everyone is nice and polite and agrees with each other, where everything runs smoothly and everyone knows what to do, how to behave, what to say--one that seems like a very convincing way of glorifying God, at first glance, but really does a better job at reflecting well on us, the organizers.
I tell myself this every time something "goes wrong," every time something is less than ideal and we're reminded that we are messy, that things don't turn out as ideally as we might like. Every time I'm tempted to cringe or feel embarrassed or even discouraged.
What is my focus? Why am I feeling like this? Why am I more concerned about the front we're presenting, about how we "come across" to others, about how well or how smoothly or how impressively we manage to do something?
Instead, remember the second event, which took place the day after, and consider--
like the barren fig tree--
how much fruit--the real fruit which matters--are we producing as a church?
Or are we doing a good job at looking like we're thriving, flourishing--plenty of leaves, pretty flowers, nice straight trunks, the kind of tree that would have been picked for a stock image--
but fruitless, under all that.
Like the barren fig tree that disappointed Jesus, and earned His curse.
Christ's example reminds us to remember what we were meant for.
Remember: this is the "season for fruit."
Photo by Jake Thacker on Unsplash
The little old lady perpetually wrapped up in a shawl, who smiles at you when you walk by. The old man with the wheezing voice, you can't really understand his mumbling but you're too embarrassed to admit it so you slink away with a strained, awkward smile. The silent one sitting in the corner that is a bit deaf and smells of herbal candies; you tell yourself she's probably dozing off anyway.
If you feel like you "don't know how" to relate or talk to the elderly in your church, then you need to remember that it isn't much different from "knowing how" to relate to anyone else. As long as you have a sincere love and desire to reach out to them, and patience (patience! patience!), you'll start learning how to see things from their perspective, understand their needs, challenges, and what makes them "click"--nothing at all different from getting to know anyone else.
For starters, though, here are some things that might help you start, since we all know that first steps often take the most courage:
1. acknowledge their presence. Greet them when you see them. Okay, this should apply to anyone actually, regardless of age--but especially the elderly. A very traditional Asian practice, maybe--my parents always told me that when visiting, I should find and greet the oldest person in the house to show respect--if dying out nowadays. But respect ought to transcend cultures, whether racial or social.
Often, because they're quiet, or not at the center of things, they get left out. People don't even acknowledge their presence. Maybe they don't hear that well, so make sure your greeting is loud and cheerful--or at least accompany it with a physical gesture to make it more obvious. A wave, a smile, a handshake, a pat on the back, a hug. There was an elderly man who could be seen feeding the cats under my block every day. He always looked fearfully grumpy, yet there was a kind of pathetic loneliness in how he would spend hours, with his favourite cat on his lap, simply sitting there silently. I used to smile at him in passing, but he never responded, and I felt--rather hurt--that he was as grumpy as he looked. It was only later on that my mom, taking the time to actually stop and talk to him, found out that his eyesight was poor. Sure enough, the next time I saw him I tried waving to him. His whole face lit up and he waved back, eagerly, smiling so widely my heart ached and I felt a pang of self-reproach.
2. talk to them. This sounds simple, and it is. Several of the older people in my church revealed how much it means to them when a young person comes up to them and spends time talking with them--regardless of age, different interests, even language barriers. It may take a while, it may feel awkward at first, but as with any other friendship, perseverance, patience, and sincerity work wonders.
3. be interested to hear their stories and be open to learn from them. Ask them to teach you how to cook that curry chicken you love. Ask them about themselves when they were your age. Ask them how they learnt to knit so well, or how they came to believe in Christ.
4. affirm their role in the church, what they do for the church. whether it's praying, cooking, or simply faithfully attending despite the rain or the backaches or the sleepless night, elderly people often play a greater role in our churches than we--or they themselves--realize. They may struggle with feeling irrelevant, useless, or unnecessary, as the way some of them talk about themselves--jokingly or otherwise--indicates. It's important to affirm and encourage them, to remind them that age and physical limitations do not define the impact we can have on others.
5. encourage them in their spiritual walk. As we get older, we face the same challenge that we had when we were young, for different reasons. We may be tempted to sink into selfishness, to live lives bogged down by self-centeredness--
--for young people, because we have our whole life before us, and all the world to explore and conquer, every reason to enjoy life. So many distractions! So many desires! So many dreams!
--but also, as we get older, because our body becomes more and more of a concern everyday. Because everyone else is rushing on in their lives at the same time we slow down more and more. Maybe we can't hear--taste--see--walk so well, we can't enjoy the same things others do, and we feel increasingly isolated from them. So many small little things which affect the quality of our daily lives, which are so simple and mundane to others that they can't fathom, but which are frustratingly significant to us--bad teeth, hearing loss, failing eyesight, sleeplessness, multiple doctor's appointments...which all have a direct impact on our quality of life and interactions with others.
6. help them to be involved and interacting with the lives of others in the church. Introduce young people to them, bring children over to say hi, ask them to pray for you/someone else/someone you're praying for. Tell them about that young mom who's been struggling with a new baby and ask them what advice they would give. Help them be aware about the needs of other people in church; the missionaries you're praying for, ministries you're involved in.
True healthy friendships aren't limited to the two people in the friendship alone but continue to have a 'splash effect' in the way they bless others outside of it, build other positive friendships--thereby bringing even more blessings to the two main people in it.
7. be thoughtful and considerate of their needs. Maybe you need to walk slower, talk louder, or just be a more patient listener. Maybe they need a hand when it's dark and it's hard to see the road clearly. Someone to send them back, or help them carry their bags. Preempt their needs and challenges, whether the challenge of stairs, or finding them a seat. Or the temperature. If they have trouble with their teeth when eating. Once when my grandma had been unwell, a sweet young sister in church prepared a box of grapes, washed clean and painstakingly peeled, for her. My grandma was very touched that she had spent enough time and attention talking to her, sitting with her, in church to know that, and to remember it. Small gestures like that demonstrate that you are sensitive to their needs and challenges, that you are looking out for them, that you care for them, in concrete and tangible ways.
Perhaps it starts with something as small as smile, as making them laugh...
The church is meant to be so much more.
Not an institution.
Not a social club.
Not even a social welfare center.
In our confusion and our muddled attempts to do what is right, we hurt others, we hurt ourselves, we damage the witness we have of Christ. We forget that the church here on earth is meant to be a shadow of the perfect community and fellowship we'll have in Heaven, which surely should make us sit up and reconsider what type of church we're creating and cultivating now. We get lost in the petty morass of what music, what Bible version, what clothes, what ministries we use to define ourselves,
I sometimes wonder if God experiences the divine equivalent of a face palm when He see us so busy and so obsessed with creating and maintaining our own idea of what church should be like, and all the while--perhaps--it's so far from what He intended for us. And meanwhile we're so busy, so self-righteously pleased with our efforts.
Search the Scriptures 1 Tim 3:14-4:5 took an interesting approach by focusing on the qualities we should aim for as a church, not just for church leaders.
1 Timothy 3: 14-15
These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly...that you may know how to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of truth...
The truth. Are we as a church concerned with the truth of the gospel rather than how palatable it is? (and this, to me, is a huge challenge personally--to "not be ashamed of the Gospel," especially now when political correctness is so significant) Am I, as an individual Christian and a church member/goer, grounded in and concerned with the truth, with examining and studying the Bible, thinking over and discussing what I hear? How important are the sermons and what we learn in Bible Study? When I was small the main point of church was tea break, the time to play and have nice snacks like chips and sausages which you mightn't get at home much. I'm still learning to readjust what I see as the focal point of Sunday worship, which often easily becomes areas of service, or people you want to catch up with.
Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
Note the repetition of 'together.'
Unity. This is such a tricky word. So often we tend to define Christian unity simply by how well everyone gets on with each other in church. It is such an abstract concept that we settle for the absence of obvious conflict and often forget to examine what this Christian unity is supposed to be based on anyway. If unity is merely everyone smiling and shaking hands during tea break how are we any different from a Meet the MP session or a wedding reception?
What is our basis for Christian unity?
Christ is our center, the reason we are together, the bond between us. Not because we have similar backgrounds or similar culture. Not because of similar personalities or hobbies. These things help, of course; they are staple to the forming of human relationships; but unlike other friendships they should not be the foundation here. In this case, sometimes they become distractions.
As such, diversity in the church is a blessing because it highlights how Christ is central to the relationships in it. Conformity or similarity so easily replace Christ and we end up getting on so well--only because we all believe in homeschooling or we share a mutual passion for fine coffee (though obviously there is nothing wrong with either.) Show me a church where you have people from all different walks of life, ages, backgrounds, income brackets, races, languages even, and I believe that's fertile ground for relationships truly based on a love for Christ, for the cultivation of truly Christ-like love, which is characterized by grace.
Think about this for a second. This has some very sobering applications on the way we see difficult or different people in church.
Likewise, the repetition of "together"--being built together, fitted together--reminds us that our spiritual growth is supposed to be a collective event and not one that takes place in isolation, as the architectural analogies highlight.
Though we ought to take individual responsibility for our spiritual growth, God's greater plan places us within the context of a church, our individual growth as inevitably tied to the collective growth of the church--both because the church ought to facilitate our growth, and because we should contribute to the church's.
2 Cor 6:16-18
And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God.
As God has said, "I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people."
No idols--something we can only accomplish by cultivating a passionate love and worship of God. These temptations are always there, even as a church; our idol might be expanding our congregation, or being thought well of, or having more full time workers etc. On a personal level--how do we contribute to the culture and atmosphere in church, do our conversations reflect and reinforce the idols of everyday life? Do we create a community or environment which is conducive to and condones petty, habitual sin, the consuming pursuit of idols, from pornography to people-pleasing?
We need to encourage each other, to grow in loving God before we can truly get started on destroying the idols consuming us.
From Annie Dillard's "Church"
"The higher Christian churches - where, if anywhere, I belong - come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom."
How many of you want to be a blessing to your church?
A few hands appear--hopefully, that is.
How many of you want to feel blessed by your church?
Based on the general discontent that characterizes our current attitude towards the church, a lot more hands appear. Sure, there are problems--when has there ever not been?--new struggles, old ones, weak people, miscommunication; nothing new under the sun, to quote Ecclesiastes 1:9.
Well, here are 5 ways to bless your church--and yourself in the process, because the two come together:
1. Don't be a church-ninja. You can be a regular attendee but unable to name more than five people; or perhaps only the usher on duty that Sunday knows you even turned up at all. Don't come for service wrapped in an invisible cloak and magically vanish immediately after. Sometimes people just need that little bit of initiative. Sometimes they just need an answering smile to be brave enough to approach you (from my own experience, this is very much the case.) Go make a coffee and a friend in the process. Don't hide in the toilet or seek refuge in your phone, tucked away in the empty worship hall after everyone's left. The temptation to keep to yourself in your comfort zone, not give any more effort than it took to get out of bed and turn up, is very real, regardless of whether you're in a big church or a small one. This applies to whether you're a visitor or a regular attendee, someone who maybe grew up in church but feels disconnected and insecure. It's easy to do nothing; but then you shouldn't be surprised if you feel like you're not "getting" anything (a phrase I've actually heard several times. Maybe we should start handing out goody bags and participation certificates at the church exit.)
Reach out to people. And pray for the wisdom and love--and yes, maybe courage too--that you need to do that.
2. Get your hands dirty. Be involved in serving. Whether in small, prosaic ways and needs--coming from a small church which rents classrooms for our worship venue, setting up the place (ie. tagging all the desks with numbers and drawing a diagram on the whiteboard so we could rearrange the classroom back in order afterwards, setting out chairs and laying out hymnbooks etc) was one important, if often downplayed, area of service as well as a very real need. Take a look at what are the existing areas of service and needs in your church; whether committing to pray for people, visiting someone who is unwell, hosting visitors, or simply offering to usher. Smile and hold out a hymnbook. How much simpler can it be?
And consider: what are your gifts, your passions, or your assets, and how can they translate into a way you can bless your church? Perhaps you want to try your hand at flower arrangements. Bring an arrangement every Sunday and remind people of the beauty of the Creator we are gathered to worship (this is what I've been doing for years, and I'm always surprised and touched by the people who tell me how much they enjoy and appreciate the flowers every Sunday. I never thought a hobby could add to the atmosphere of Sunday worship in such a meaningful way.)
Or bless others with your signature recipe, like that grandma in my church who makes wonderful Nonya kuih in the true traditional style, down to using the dye from blue flowers. If love was soft, sweet, and sticky, that would be it.
Open your home or organize something for the children; share your new waffle iron, or some free movie tickets your boss gave you. I'm learning how creatively you can serve in church from the examples of others. Look around for inspiration.
Serving takes sacrifice, courage, vision, and dedication. It may start with something as small as volunteering to wash cups or push a wheelchair; but there is so much more that God has in mind for us in serving, than simply being the human instrument to get the job at hand done. Being involved in serving helps you to understand and appreciate the others who serve you; helps you understand your church and its needs better. One of the best ways to integrate and get to know people is when you do things for them and together with them.
3. Affirm people. In every church there is a backbone of people who are serving faithfully, often unacknowledged, often over many years. Like pastors and teachers who are more often criticised and taken for granted than it would be nice to acknowledge, they need encouragement. Take the time to be thankful. Notice those who are working in the background, and more often than not there's much you can learn from them.
4. Take charge of your spiritual growth. Don't see this as the pastor and Bible study teacher's job. I think they'll thank you for it. Jesus told Peter to shepherd His flock, not put them in incubators on tube feeding. The church is there to encourage and facilitate spiritual growth; it is the means to an end, rather than an end in itself. If you think that being there to sing hymns and warm a chair in the congregation is the extent of your input in accomplishing this goal, please think again. You're not here to be spoon fed spiritual truths and maturity like a pate de foie gras goose, though admittedly that would be a much cushier form of sanctification. Do your devotions. Read your Bible on your own, not just every Sunday during the worship reading. Study the parts of the Bible you don't understand, ask intelligent questions, don't assume that your spiritual growth depends on how knowledgeable or gifted your pastor or Bible Study teacher is. Too often we come to church with an entitled attitude that both prevents us from gaining anything, and sets us up to tear down others. All right, I'm here, I've done my part, now it's your job to make me feel my great sacrifice of several hours of sleep was worth it; by the time I walk out these doors I'd better have experienced a revival, seen several conversions, and feel on fire with the Holy Spirit; and if not, that just proves this church is lousy.
We come to church as if we're judges on the panel of some spiritual reality show, as if we're consumers trying out (spiritual) food at a new restaurant.
When you take the responsibility for your own spiritual growth, you will be less passive, less quick to judge, less entitled. More open and humble. Don't see church as your weekly dose of Christianity, like enforced exercise; hit the gymn on your own, embrace the challenges, the enjoyment, and the benefits that come with it.
5. Understand that every church has its strengths and weaknesses, as they are made up of sinful people. Perhaps I'm not one to speak, as someone who has been in the same church all my life; but as I see and hear others discuss the seemingly impossible task of finding and choosing a suitable church, I've concluded that it's rather like choosing a spouse.
In other words, no one person/church will ever be perfect. However great they are at dancing, playing the guitar, or making cute bento box lunches, they still wake up with bad breath in the mornings or leave dirty laundry on the floor. What's important, then, is deciding what combo of pros and cons works for you? What strengths are greater, more important, than the weaknesses? What's your deal breaker? And just like choosing a spouse, this decision and this relationship requires you to be humble and ready to admit your own mistakes and sins. To be willing to forgive others. To see that people who have different opinions, personalities, etc are God-given ways for you to learn humility, forbearance, love.
To understand the magnitude of Christ's love in learning what sacrificial, selfless love is, first-hand.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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