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Reading casually through Micah chapter 4, I absorbed a depiction of peace. Unity. Restoration. Healing, contentment. That most beautiful line--"every man under his vine and fig tree"--brightest of all. What a calming and comforting passage.
It was only when I read Search the Scriptures' prompt that I realized--for the first time--that the same passage was also predicting the fall of Zion and the exile of the people.
Only passingly mentioned in this chapter, the devastation and suffering it entailed would take place before the peace pictured here, and be the context from which God would deliver His people.
And that was sobering. To know that so much war, violence, heartbreak, and despair lay just around the corner, and yet, at the same time, to know that that was not the end--that in God's eyes, that was only the setting for the greater, overarching, lasting deliverance of His people.
Perhaps you are in the midst of experiencing a spiritual or emotional equivalent of the war and exile in this passage.
4 But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree,
And no one shall make them afraid;
For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
5 For all people walk each in the name of his god,
But we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
Forever and ever.
You long for the peace, the healing, the restoration, the contentment that Micah depicts. The confidence and comfort of God's presence. The sense of security and quiet contentment, the assurance that comes from knowing we are where we belong, where we are needed. Beyond the reach of fear. Whether external or internal.
3 He shall judge between many peoples,
And rebuke strong nations afar off;
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
For justice. For deliverance. When what is being used now as weapons and sources of conflict become tools to nurture and cultivate peace, growth, fruitfulness.
6 “In that day,” says the Lord,
“I will assemble the lame,
I will gather the outcast
And those whom I have afflicted;
7 I will make the lame a remnant,
And the outcast a strong nation;
So the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion
From now on, even forever.
You long for healing. From the fears and hurts which cripple you. From limitations. From imperfections, both of the flesh and spirit. You long for strength that you can only dream of now, and wholeness that wrings your heart to think about. For community, for friendship, for encouragement; for assurance of God's sovereignty in a frightening and chaotic world.
9 Now why do you cry aloud?
Is there no king in your midst?
Has your counselor perished?
For pangs have seized you like a woman in labor.
And He answers us, directly.
Am I not here?
Am I not in control?
Do you not trust my plans?
Can you trust that the pain you're in now--
--without dismissing any of your suffering, its effects, its scars--
--may be the threshold to something greater?
10 Be in pain, and labor to bring forth,
O daughter of Zion,
Like a woman in birth pangs.
For now you shall go forth from the city,
You shall dwell in the field,
And to Babylon you shall go.
There you shall be delivered;
There the Lord will redeem you
From the hand of your enemies.
Hold on to hope, even as you face pain and suffering and what seems--as it must have seemed to the Israelites, being led out from the ruins of their city, towards exile and slavery and the end of every proud dream or ambition--crushing disappointment and despair.
You can't see it now, but there is peace and joy ahead of you.
Babylon--the heart of the storm, the fiercest depths of your humiliation, the white-hot nucleus of your suffering, the most numbing despair, the trial you dread the most--is where you will see redemption burst forth, more glorious and breathtaking and life-changing than ever for its context.
12 But they do not know the thoughts of the Lord,
Nor do they understand His counsel;
For He will gather them like sheaves to the threshing floor.
We don't. Indeed we cannot understand Him.
His power to transcend even pain.
But we can trust Who He is.
Photo by Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash
give me peace and wisdom to handle this sense of overwhelming inability,
of being futilely stretched,
There are so many people needs and relationships, so many areas of service needing faithful people to commit to and labour in, on top of everything else; and most of all I just don't have TIME. Overused as the phrase is.
I feel helpless, struggling not to feel guilty or depressed over everything I couldn't do, everything I wish I could do, everything I couldn't do as well as I ought or wanted to. It's as if I'm trying to donate blood to as many people as possible in an endless cue...trying to make do by giving each one less, faint and bloodless, yet it's not enough.
I feel so helpless.
God help me. Human limits are staring me in the face.
Vaguely I recognize this as a lesson in learning to trust--learning humility--learning wisdom in loving and serving better...
I happened to flip back on an old journal entry where I was having a particularly bad case of burn-out. Discouraged. Exhausted. Verging on resentful, even as I felt guilty for failing, for not doing more.
I was trying to keep up my studies, wanting to be more active in church, uncomfortably aware that there was more I could do for my family, also unpleasantly conscious that to be an ambitious and productive young adult I should also be researching and getting my own projects done during this precious window of time before I graduated.
After all, "do all things to the glory of God," right?
We groan inwardly and resolve (more faintly each time) to try harder.
These are ugly, poisonous, unpleasant thoughts and feelings; but we shouldn't be afraid to confront them, because they indicate a serious problem in our spiritual lives, rather than our generalized diagnosis of inadequacies on our part, limitations of time and energy.
The Plate Spinner: A Little Book for Busy Young Adults by Dev Menon-- this thin little book happened to come my way recently.
I read it and realized:
1. almost every sentence was relatable
2. it was quite rare and refreshing, in my experience, to read a Christian book from a Singapore perspective.
3. though initially I was somewhat skeptical on how much of a resolution the author could provide to such a big, abstract problem, he made quite a good shot at hitting the nail on the head.
At least in Singapore, where our culture is ingrained with expectations of perfectionism and subsequently, constant assessment, this is a real issue. We really do have this unspoken ideal that we should excel at each area of our life, as Christians. "Do all things to the glory of God" has become a kind of pressurizing drive to excel, whether in spiritual or secular definitions of excellence; in every area of life, in your obligations and duties. You know how students get told that as a Christian student you glorify God by working hard at your studies and doing your best (which is true, in one sense, yet so easily gets twisted into a good grades=glorifying God mantra.)
On top of that, as young adults, we're juggling more and more responsibilities and relationships. The drive to excel, to be at the top not only of our game but of all the different games we're involved in (in Dev Menon's metaphor, the different slices in the pie graph of our lives) becomes overwhelming.
That means being a hard-working, responsible student/employee--getting good grades, promotions, respect.
That means coming for church and prayer meetings and serving in some way at church.
That means caring for our families and spending time/communicating with them.
Bonus points if you have some charity/outreach work you're involved in.
Oh, and did we mention being free enough to spend time with church friends outside of church? To be a listening ear to that needy friend in crisis?
That's the vision we all have of the "perfect Christian," isn't it?
We get burnt out and discouraged, wonder why we can't juggle everything and why, once we focus on one area, all the rest slip out of control.
The different slices of the pie graph seem to pull us in different directions and we often succumb to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, anxiety. Worse, we start to cut corners in an attempt to juggle better, or we start to resent the areas which take up more of our time than we'd planned for them to in our neat little pie graph. We start to get results-oriented, self-reliant, we dismiss people and their individual needs and opinions if they don't go along with our efficient plan, or we start to resent people who are 'needier', 'high-maintenance.' And we start to wonder, tiredly, why it's so hard to 'be a Christian'; that God's demands on us seem like the last straw on top of the other demands being made on us. Just another slice in the pie competing for our (very limited) time, energy, and effort.
Dev Menon calls this 'plate spinning.' Because we have our plate full rushing around keeping all of the many plates in our lives spinning (A lame pun, I know.)
It's a matter of perspective, at least that's what I've learnt to see in my own struggles with this issue.
Instead of thinking that being a Christian is one slice in the piechart of your life, which you're obligated to maintain--to see your entire life/the whole pie as your new life in Christ. Different aspects of it, that's all, but all contributing, all part of.
This collapse of the spiritual/secular divide, this consciousness of God in every day and activity, was crucial in my own spiritual growth, and I believe is just as crucial in overcoming the sense of burn-out and insufficiency we're talking about here. During the journal entry above, I hadn't quite reached this point yet, though I vaguely knew--as I recognized--that there was something fundamentally wrong with how I saw and applied my abilities, priorities, how I understood what it meant to address the different areas in my life as a Chr
I know, I know. Maybe "perspective" alone doesn't seem that liberating. After all, a change in perspective doesn't mean that we magically get an extra two hours, or that we can wave off going to church whenever we feel like it.
There are times, Menon emphasizes, when certain areas are going to need more time and effort than others. At these times, we should not feel guilty or like a failure if we need to step back from those other areas--consciously do less than the best. For example, you might need to spend more time with your family when a crisis happens, and take a step down from work, or--gasp!--serving in church. To truly see God in all areas of your life, and trust His timing and wisdom, we would be able to accept that this does not mean failure. That we're being a lousy Christian. That we're regressing spiritually.
Rather, we accept that God allowed this to happen--we accept our limitations--we accept that we have to change our focus, that God wants us to grow in this specific area, at this time.
This can only happen when our understanding of what it means to be a Christian transcends that pie slice labeled "Christianity/church-related" in our time, isn't limited to the activities that make up that pie slice.
Instead, we would see that God is making it clear that we need to actively pursue His help and presence in this particular area. That in it, we face another opportunity to understand Him better.
Instead of feeling woefully guilty and insufficient, as if God is throwing us dirty glances because we're not clocking in the hours required on His pie slice, we see it as under Him--from Him--rather than competing with Him.
And if you think about it--isn't that a more accurate and significant application of what it means to "do all things to the glory of God?"
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.
A few weeks ago, I went out with a group of friends, and during the inevitable silence when everyone was chewing their food, an idea came into my head as I sailed my last piece of naan around in a sea of butter chicken gravy.
"Can I ask a weird question?" I licked my fingers clean as my naan boat shipwrecked, and unapologetically broke the peaceful lull of mastication and digestion. "What kind of old person do you aspire to become?"
It was a thought that had never come to me in this form before. I mean, I think we've all, at some point or other, thought about what it would be like when we get old; maybe even had some ideas about what we want to do (or not do) when we are old. But 'aspire to be' isn't often connected to the idea of aging. If anything, that phrase (and the attitude it connotes) is usually used when talking about youths and children growing up. Because to aspire implies purposeful working towards that goal, doesn't it? You aspire to be a pop star, so you regularly deafen your family by singing in the bathroom, and practice perfecting that brilliant superstar smile every time someone takes a picture of you. You aspire to be the valedictorian, so you push yourself to do that extra practice set, take tuition, and make sure you study harder than everyone else. You aspire to be a doctor, so you try to ace biology and chemistry, and watch Korean dramas about glamourized doctors to motivate yourself. (I'm joking, okay? But there's something to be said about the role of media. I remember feeling like I was wasting my life studying literature instead of learning how to save lives after I finished watching Descendants of the Sun.)
But growing old? Maybe we avoid thinking about it in the first place. After all, toniiiiight....we are young....*beat drops*
All seasons of life are a blessing from God. If we rush into them thoughtlessly, we miss out on so much that they have to offer. Christians are called to do all things to the glory of God. That implies purposefulness. You can't accidentally glorify God. Since it's not easy to do so even when you're trying to. In Craig Cabaniss's words, "Glorifying God is an intentional pursuit. We don't accidentally drift into holiness; rather, we mature gradually and purposefully, one choice at a time."
And that includes growing older.
As I thought about myself, I realized how important the examples of people I knew were in shaping my answer. Whether it was what I wanted to be like, or didn't want to be like, it was always through thinking of someone I knew, of the impression their life and person had made on me; how they had represented their age, so to speak. It was as if I was trying to choose a career by thinking of all the different careers of the people I knew.
For example, a dear family friend came to my mind, who had went to the mission field in a third world country as a grandmother. On her own. And every time I saw her, she gave little me the impression of grace and kindness as well as the dignity of old age. I remember her dressed simply but elegantly. I remember how she always brought little gifts for us whenever she came--pretty things I treasured away, like the necklace with blue beads and pink leaves I still have in my jewelry box. I remember how smiley she was, what a pleasure to be around. Most of all, how here was someone living out love and thoughtfulness at an age where society told you to focus on taking care of yourself. When most people her age were looking into retirement, she started a whole new chapter of life, serving, loving.
The old gentleman who lovingly feeds the cats downstairs everyday--
--who smiles so brightly in the lift to even the grumpiest neighbours with genuine interest in his eyes
--who, when we jogged past each other, surprised me by waving and smiling cheerfully, too breathless for a greeting. I felt ashamed for being such a grim-looking jogger (though admittedly, it's hard to smile when you feel like you're dying)
Or another friend, a fiesty German lady who travelled the world on her own--which was how she first met my mom on a Singapore bus as a tourist who needed loose change. That small incident started a friendship that extended to the rest of the family, and went on for years and years. Every birthday, I would be sure to get a card, full of her spidery handwriting, with snapshots of the birds in her garden, or pretty postcards she thought we would like. Thoughtfulness. Vitality. A curiosity about others and the world that kept her eyes bright even when she could barely walk anymore. How many adults that you know would take the trouble to keep up a correspondence with a child over mail? Exactly.
Even though every letter means so much to that child.
The elderly man I saw on the bus who went all out to make the baby sitting in front of him laugh.
Of course, my own grandmothers, each singular epitomes of the strong woman that forms the nucleus of a family, using their skills to nurture and build those of others. The kind of women who don't talk about strength, but who live it out every day.
In old age, due to the physical decline of our bodies and the big changes of lifestyle we experience, it's easy to get self-absorbed, or to withdraw. I don't say this to judge--in fact, it's exactly the same challenge we face as young people, for the opposite reasons; the 'life of unmitigated selfishness' I wrote about years ago. Because selfishness is a temptation we face every day of our lives. In fact it has been the number one thing I've been praying about for the past few months, especially as business and stress levels rise with finals approaching. Regardless of age, it's so easy to be completely absorbed by our physical or emotional needs; like a paper towel lying passively saturated in a pool of spilt coffee.
I got some interesting answers to that random question inspired during the consumption of butter chicken and naan. It took everyone a while, perhaps it was the food digesting; but almost everyone had the same answer; they knew they didn't want to be a grumpy old person!
As for me--I aspire to be an old lady who takes interest in others, who is hospitable and shares my abilities, my skills, my knowledge. Who has a heart for young children and youth (which is not easy; we're often so careless and impatient, so self-absorbed in the importance of our own youth and life when we interact with old people.) Who prays, because of all the many things age limits us from doing, prayer remains. The best prayer warriors I know have all been older people.
It's time to start looking towards old age with an attitude of aspiration, not just acceptance. As C.S Lewis so beautifully said, "The process of growing up is to be valued not for what we lose, but for what we gain." I always thought of this quote in the context of someone in their twenties, having to accept being an adult, letting go of nostalgia, of reaching maturity; but isn't this even more poignant and thought-provoking when it comes to aging?
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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