I type this with a tissue box on one hand and a mound of crumpled tissues on the other, like one of those 'Number Function Machines' in childhood maths where perfectly normal numbers go in at one side and come out transformed into useless gibberish (at least, so it seemed to me.) I've brought the lively souvenirs of memories and germs back with me from the past ten days in China. Met many people. Struggled determinedly with expressing myself in Chinese. Missed tropical weather to the very tips of my frozen toes. Fed seagulls. Experienced a, how shall I put it, motley variety of toilets. Came back to face a relapse of the viruses I thought I'd recovered from, suitcases clamouring to be unpacked, and life (basically a full schedule) clamouring to be lived.
Most of all, as with every trip but especially mission trips, many thoughts and reflections to be slowly mulled over and written down as they crystallise. We don't do much soul-searching today, though we're told to 'self-apply...examine yourself...think about what you've learnt.' Corny as it may sound, we do need to think if we wish life to be as meaningful as we know it should be. From the seemingly random experiences we are given, there are actually concrete 'life-lessons,' so to speak, (overused as the word is) to be distilled if we take time to think over what we have seen and felt. In fact, in the future those thoughts will stand out with the greatest significance, long after we have forgotten the little details which initially distract us from considering greater, overarching meaning.
Growing up in a tiny church which was basically just five or so families for the longest time, church was always comfortable and cozy (despite the initial phase of dresses and lacy socks which we complained put us at a disadvantage when racing with the boys.) The phrase church family, overused as it may be today, was far from a Christianese cliche and very real to me. This was the kind of community where you knew who made the funny sounding sneeze during service, where aunties would tell you if your pants had come unzipped (and help you zip it up unobtrusively), where a good number of your church friends had stayed over at your house before, where the younger kids walked around in the clothes the older kids had been walking around in two years before. This initial 'desert' stretch of many years in which we hardly had any visitors, let alone any who stayed, was probably very discouraging to the adults. But to me, at least, those years felt like a refuge in the mountains; tucked away cozily in your own homely community, a cotton wool situation perhaps.
We were all different, yes; homeschooled and public schooled, fluent or handicapped in Chinese, young, old--but the common experience of those years had unified us, strengthened us in our common areas, and enabled us to laugh over our differences.
Many years on, it's a very different case--there are so many new people; church has become as hectic as one of those games of hide-and-catch, with so many faces, so many people to talk to; so many needs. Obviously, it brought us much joy and encouragement, and the wonderful new friends God in His goodness has brought have blessed our small church with much vibrancy, love, and delight. Obviously, it is a good thing to be growing as a church. Obviously, it is a wonderful thing to meet more fellow Christians.
But when the inevitable happens--when people start to see each others' differences; when cliques start to form, when you overhear gossip, when disagreements and even quarrels can't be completely resolved, when people talk unlovingly of each other. My heart almost broke when I first saw these things happening. Of course, I knew that every church would have these problems, simply because every (fallen) human has these problems. Of course, I knew they probably already existed, I was just too small to see any of them. But they broke my heart anyway, because I couldn't believe they were actually happening right here in my own church family. Church family. I finally understood why to some people that word had none of the warmth and sincerity it had always had to me.
If only we weren't so different, it would be easier to get along. That unspoken thought seems to hover in my mind, in the minds of others. Can't relate to her. Can't understand why she's like that. Can't agree with them. Why can't they be more like me?
This trip, I met so many different groups of believers it was overwhelming to see how God was working in so many different ways, through so many different people. Educated, intellectual people. Elderly, rural farmers who couldn't speak any English. Children who had devastating backgrounds of poverty and neglect. All of them received us warmly. Language barrier; culture clash; no prior knowledge; you name it, we had it, all the cons of forming a relationship were pretty much ours. Nevertheless the instant impression was the love with which we already saw each other with, because of our common love for Christ. Before even knowing each other, we knew we were kindred spirits, so to speak. How different we were--how different, even, they were to each other. How different all the various ministries I'd seen, each led by people with different callings, skills, and burdens, let alone backgrounds and personalities.
And that, to me, was the glorious power of God. How all these differences were nevertheless united in Him. Differences were good--gloriously and wonderfully good--witnessing for, serving God as all the amount of sameness in the world never could have.
To our secular minds, perhaps, differences are bad. Even as Christians, looking at our church community, differences seem to be destructive.
If only we weren't so different, it would be easier to get along.
Are differences really at the root of all our problems?
I believe that we need to stop seeing church the way we see any other social gathering--something which may seem self-evident, but in fact is a subtly pervasive attitude we don't even realize we have. Yes, differences make it hard to connect, to relate, to understand, most importantly to love. But in God's eyes differences are beautiful. He uses us in our differences to serve and witness for Him, more widely, more greatly than we could if we were all the same. Yet He gives us the common bond of love for Christ. This overcomes the conflicts that will (humanly) arise from our differences.
As for church? Why do we prioritize other affinities like career, schooling, background, preferences, even callings, in forming relationships, just as we do in any other social event?
We need to see that our sole bond and sole reason for being together is Christ. All other affinities are plus points--not vice versa. We don't worship God after we've found people like ourselves whom we enjoy being with as individuals, and then worship Him as another facet of our sameness.
God is greater than our sameness.
He calls us to be different, in the first place, from the world. Different in a way that glorifies Him--not pandering to our taste. So why do we idolize sameness so much within ourselves?
If we truly see our love for Christ as our main, even sole bond, our differences will stop being such a big issue. Once we stop expecting to and trying to associate only with people like us; once we accept that the whole concept of a church is truly a 'body of Christ'--intrinsically united despite our differences--our relationships in the church will stop being self-centred, and start to be Christ-centred. Truly loving--not merely because you please me and I like being with you, or you make me feel good.
Differences. One of God's gifts to us.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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