image by Annie Spratt from Unsplash
Recently I attended the annual combined youth camp that my church participates in with other Reformed churches from different countries. It is always a good chance to step outside of your comfort zone, broaden your horizons, be encouraged when sharing and hearing about the wider work of God across various churches, countries, and cultures.
This year, one of the speakers did a short series on Elijah--which just happened to be the same passage I had chosen to do with my Sunday School kids. Ah, I thought. I'm very familiar with this.
However, as we studied the passages in 1 Kings chp 17-19, I felt for the first time a personal connection with Elijah and what he went through. Elijah has one of the most exciting narratives in the Bible. It's the stuff of any epic action movie. A national crisis. An evil king egged on by a bloodthirsty evil queen. The one man fighting for what is right despite being the underdog, being hunted for his life. Multiple life-and-death situations. Incredible supernatural miracles in every chapter, and equally incredible courage that enabled Elijah to defy the king and queen, the entire idolatrous nation, and basically everything against him. Heck, Netflix be calling to make a series of this soon.
Naturally, though it made for a cool story, I never really connected with Elijah's character. His bravery-to-the-point-of-recklessness, incredible faith in God, macho toughness in the face of impossible odds, and general badassery (is that even a term?) made him seem like some swashbuckling superhero who had very little in common with someone ordinary like me. Come on, I struggled to have faith for my exam grades. Elijah had faith that God would rescue him from Jezebel when he was standing before her and surrounded by her guards.
So studying this passage again made me suddenly sensitive to the chronology of events, and the peculiar insight into Elijah's character which transformed him, hero though he be in so many aspects, into a human no different from us, who struggled with fears, lack of faith, and self-pity.
At the dramatic contest of Mt Carmel, Elijah was at his peak. God used him in the most fantastic and epic way imaginable, with all the spotlight on him, to prove that the God of Israel was real. He was outnumbered by the prophets of Baal, his life was in danger at every moment, and yet God's power coursed through him, in the miracle that he performed, and the fearlessness he displayed. This is the Elijah we remember, the tough guy who sneers at the prophets of Baal, the guy who isn't scared of Jezebel, the guy who calls down fire from Heaven.
One would have thought that after this amazing display of God's power over Baal, over man, Elijah's faith would be even stronger than before. However, after the contest at Mt Carmel concludes, we see Elijah fold to pieces almost instantly, after receiving Jezebel's death threat in chp 19. Like any of us, despite the obvious proof of God's power which he had just witnessed--just conducted--he fell to the fear of man. Terror gripped him. All of a sudden, he did not believe that God could protect him now, when God had protected him all along. He turned to his own devices and fled, following what his scared human reasoning told him was the smart thing to do: "Elijah was afraid and ran for his life." He ran from his fears, trying to deal with them as he thought best, overwhelmed by the humanly impossible odds against him.
So often we too, after God answers our prayers, or demonstrates His power in our lives, fail to grow in faith, and instead fall again so easily into the pit of our fears--fear of what we can't control; fear of man; but ultimately, fear that God is not good, that we cannot rely on God to protect and provide for us. He was clearly disappointed that even after the miracle they had witnessed at Carmel, the Israelites were still too cowardly to come to his support, and that the victory God had given him at Carmel was not going to work out as he had expected, the turning point for Israel to recognize their sin and repent immediately. Elijah had put his hope in man instead of God. Now he was overwhelmed--with fear of Jezebel, and disappointment in the Israelites. A crushing sense of failure and disillusionment, probably bitterness as well, added to the fear of being killed.
It seems so obvious in Elijah's case, that the God Who sent ravens to feed him, Who raised the widow's son from the dead, Who kept him safe from Jezebel all these years, Who sent blazing fire down from heaven, would definitely be able to protect him. But it doesn't seem so obvious to us, blinded by our fears, in our own situations we face today.
When Elijah collapsed in the wilderness, unable to go any further on his own, at his wit's end, at the limit of his own human devices, he fell into despair and depression. Wallowing in self-pity and hopelessness, he turned suicidal, questioned the meaning of his life, and told God he couldn't take any more. "He came to a broom tree, sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. 'I have had enough, Lord,' he said, 'Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.' "
When was the last time we felt this way?
Suddenly I saw myself in Elijah.
What I love most is how God responded at this point. God had let him try his own solutions, God had waited till Elijah realized it was no use, and when Elijah gave up in despair and wished to die, God stepped in.
Without rebuking him for his lack of faith. Without scolding him for his ungratefulness or short-sightedness. "I just used you so powerfully at Mt Carmel, did you get amnesia already? Do you think, if I sent fire down from heaven at your request, I can't rescue you from Jezebel? As ifffffff"
God knew Elijah's fears and struggles, and He had compassion on him. He first of all cared for his physical needs, letting him sleep soundly, sending him food and water, all of which Elijah had neglected in his fear-crazed escape plan (and which clearly also contributed to his emotional and psychological collapse.)
After Elijah had rested, been fed, hydrated, God spoke to him. Gently. God asked him simply, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" One question, to make him stop in his tracks, to think and examine his motivations.
Elijah hadn't gotten over his self-pity yet. He ranted to God about his loneliness and suffering and generally had a good bawl that also managed to be as paegro as he dared.
And still, God didn't scold him, God didn't tell him off for being needy or weak or faithless.
God simply told him, feel My presence.
After the dramatic demonstrations of power and strength, Elijah was shaken, yet reminded that God, Who could do all this, was nevertheless was not just the fire on Mt Carmel, some impersonal supernatural power like The Force.
God was in the gentle whisper after all that, the still small voice. Personal. Compassionate. And once again, without telling him off, God asked him again to examine himself. "What are you dong here, Elijah?"
Still clinging defensively to his rant, Elijah delivered it again, weakly.
And God's response was to give him clear directions which reinforced the meaning for his life which he had been looking for. You are important to Me. I have important work for you to do, which will affect not only the nation of Israel but even the neighbouring pagan nations as well. You will anoint kings, directly subverting the power of Ahab and Jezebel from within and without.
In addition to that, God acknowledged his weariness, and comforted him--God told him He had already chosen and prepared a successor. Retirement was in sight, when Elijah had thought that it would never end. And finally, God reminded him-so gently!--that he was not alone. He might have suffered, but all God's true people were making the same, often difficult decisions, to stay faithful in each day when surrounded by an ungodly and idolatrous culture. In Elijah's (very) limited perspective, everything seemed hopeless, his efforts seemed pointless, and his life meaningless. But in God's plan, as we can clearly see when we read these chapters, it was anything but so. In fact, at the point when Elijah felt he couldn't go on anymore, God had already prepared his "exit strategy."
God knew him, on a deeply personal, deeply compassionate and loving way. God knew his fears and weariness and struggles, and God did not resent him for them or punish him for them, even when he behaved foolishly or weakly. God was not a relentless taskmaster who didn't care what the emotional state of this tool was as long as it got His job done. Far from it. God was gentle with Elijah at his lowest, most broken point--a great man, but still a man like us.
to be continued
image by Bryan Minear from Unsplash
My pastor preached a sermon the other day which helped me rethink the way we see coming to church every Sunday.
Let's face it. Eventually, for any good Christian attending church regularly, we can't help much of it becoming routine. Like how you hit the gym every Tuesday or visit your grandparents, or water your plants. We go through the motions of church every Sunday, the process of events becoming mind-numbingly familiar.
What's the main, ultimate purpose in going to church? We go to church to worship God. No one would disagree with that, I presume. And worshipping God, however that practically translates to you--regardless of whether you sit among the congregation, are in the pulpit, in the AV room, in the worship team, or ushering outside--is not a passive action.
When we gather to worship God in church, we are neither performers or passive spectators.
We are all equally, actively worshipping God.
Sometimes it's easy to forget when you're involved in the worship service, in leading any of the events. I remember sitting in my seat as the sermon came to an end, feeling like a runner at the start line of a race. It must be an even greater temptation for pastors, for whom Sunday is their big day, where they present the sermon they've been working on the whole week. Or for those playing music, or teaching Bible study classes; we feel, like performers, that we're "running this."
But that's a mindset that makes it hard to worship. When we're most tempted to feel that everything depends on us and our ability, we're least aware of our need for God. And in the midst of all our busyness, we need to fight to remember this. How do we worship God on Sunday? Being busy helping others to worship Him is not a replacement. We need to seek to worship Him ourselves. This is something that, like glorifying God, we don't just accidentally drift into doing. This requires us to purposefully dedicate and prepare our hearts, to purposefully focus. We need to stop seeing ourselves as performers, being so acutely aware of the gaze of others, being so focused on getting this done successfully.
Sometimes, as someone who regularly sits in the congregation, it's easy to forget. When church is something that you're not involved in, that you simply turn up to every Sunday, we tend to develop a kind of passive spectatorship/entitled consumer attitude. As if it's a restaurant or hotel, or we're watching a movie. Was it entertaining enough, comfortable enough, impressive enough? We come expecting to be spoon-fed and served, without making more effort than it took to be there. We frown, purse our lips, shake our heads or nod, making notes, mentally reviewing, comparing, assessing. Three out of five stars. Could be more efficient. The ushers could smile more. The babies could be quieter. The air conditioning should be colder.
But no. In God's eyes, just as each one of us is individually His child, each one of us is there to worship Him. And that is something that requires our individual response and involvement.
We need to pray--not for smoother, more impressive, more well-run Sundays--but for the Spirit to move hearts, to plant repentance in us, to enable us to come before God and truly worship Him with the humble and quiet hearts, regardless of whether we're sitting in the congregation, or in front of everyone.
image by Jordan Whitt from Unsplash
Note: First of all, this is not a rant, though to some people my attempts at humour may come across as angst. I am not attacking anyone; these are simply general observations from years of experience, not just as a Sunday School teacher, but also from observing the attitudes other people and especially parents (from various churches) have towards Sunday School. As with secular teaching, there have been the good, there have been the bad, there have been the negatively neutral (by which I mean the silent hands-off kinds.) Which should be no surprise to us. But that doesn't mean we should settle for it. We should try our best to encourage healthy and theologically correct attitudes in order that God's work will be furthered without disruptions. So here is my two mites' worth.
If, like most people, you've not taught Sunday School before, or you've not had much to do with it, I hope this post will change your mind. That first of all, you too have a part in how you contribute to creating a healthy culture for Sunday School to flourish. Regardless of whether you're single, or a parent. Regardless of whether you're actually actively "involved", or not.
Personally, I've had a wonderful experience teaching Sunday School. Overall, I've been blessed with supportive and understanding parents as well as dear students which made this role a joy more than a duty. My hope is that everyone will contribute to creating this kind of environment for the teachers and ultimately, for the children, so that the ultimate goal for Sunday School--helping them to know and love God, and to believe in Jesus--will be joyfully made possible.
1. Realize that if you're a parent, the primary responsibility for your child's spiritual education and health does not rest on the Sunday school teacher, but on you. The best Sunday School teacher in the world cannot replace your role as a parent. Are you spending time to pray with your child, to listen to their questions about God, to read the Bible and discuss what they don't understand?
Knowing this is the foundation for changing unhealthy and unhelpful attitudes many parents may have towards Sunday School, and for making the Sunday School teacher's work incredibly more effective.
If you have no idea what your child has been learning in Sunday School, or if you see their weekly one hour there as their main spiritual education, it's a pretty good indication that you may need to reconsider the way you see Sunday School.
2. Be involved. Talk to the children about what they learn, and show an interest. Encourage them to tell you what they learn, if they're past the stage where they don't spontaneously want to tell you. Engage them in discussions about those topics and how they can relate what they learned in Sunday School to their everyday lives. This helps them to remember and apply what they learn, and it also shows the Sunday School teacher that you're taking an active role in supporting them and helping the child during the rest of the week. After all, they only go to Sunday School once a week; how much do you expect them to absorb and retain in just one isolated hour every week?
3. Be slow to complain and quick to see how you can support. Whether this means being involved in the children's ministry, Sunday School events, or just being understanding.
Very often, the only times teachers hear from parents is when they have something they want to complain about. Teachers out there, am I right? Obviously, this doesn't encourage us to see you as an ally. Their lack of involvement also means that the complains sometimes come across as unreasonable, or don't take into account the context and background, since the parents are not aware what the situation is like.
This is the norm for the teaching industry. When it comes to Sunday School, however, please remember this is a whole different ball game. Some parents' attitudes almost suggest that Sunday School teachers are being paid to ensure their children are saved. I'm not sure exactly why, since I've never been offered any money, but there it is. (That was a joke, by the way, if you weren't sure.)
We want them to come to faith, as earnestly as you do. We struggle to do our best teaching them and nurturing them despite multiple challenges and many ineptitudes of our own. With this common goal, parents and Sunday School teachers should be working together, joyfully, with mutual respect and appreciation. You are our partners, not our clients or consumers. We are not service providers--we are simply trying to serve God.
Would you feel equipped to teach other people's children about God? (who does?) So help us, when we struggle, and be kind, remembering that we share a common goal.
4. Pray for them. The kids, and the teachers. Too often people take the Sunday School ministry for granted. If it's struggling, they complain and often blame it on the teachers. If it's doing well, they forget to pray for it and assume everything will continue status quo because of the teacher's capability. Remember that even though the children may be young, it is just as important to pray for the Spirit to start moving and changing their hearts. It is just as important to pray for the Spirit to guide and enable the Sunday School teacher with wisdom, just as we always pray for the pastors and Bible study teachers.
I am always touched and encouraged when people--regardless of whether they have kids in Sunday School, or have kids at all--remember to pray for the Sunday School ministry during prayer meetings, because it is easy to be overlooked, especially if you're not personally involved in it.
5. Encourage them. Tell them when your child tells you excitedly about a lesson they learnt, or seems to be remembering and applying what they learn. Too often, parents get used to Sunday School teachers as Sunday babysitters, or assume that their children are in good hands without needing any of their intervention--until they suddenly get worried about something and are up in arms. Sometimes this can be discouraging; complete silence from the parents/other members for months (except complaints.) It is hugely encouraging when parents come up to you to tell you what happened at home, how their child told them about what they learnt, or when the topic you taught was relevant to something the child faced at school. It shows us that what we teach during that one hour on Sundays actually resurfaced during the rest of the week, and reminds us that we are working alongside in nurturing the children--you at home, us in Sunday School.
Or when other people in church encourage us that the children seem happy and engaged with their Sunday School, and ask how they can help.
I have wonderful people in my church who, without actually being the parents of kids or personally involved in the Sunday School work, never fail to offer their help for Sunday School outings and events, take initiative to pray for it, ask me how the work is going and what challenges I face, and pass me materials/resources for it. One sister often gives stationery, sweets, or other small items to distribute or use as prizes/gifts, for example. Another collected a copy of the chords for Christian children's songs for me in case they might be useful. Some offer to help send and pick up the children for Sunday School events if their parents are busy.
The Sunday School ministry is not just something "for kids," "for parents of kids," "for people who like kids/have a gift for working with kids."
But I'll save that for another post.
image by Tribesh Kayastha from Unsplash
Right now, what seems like the most impossible thing that you've been requesting from God?
There are so many things which seem impossible to us. They discourage us, making us doubt God's goodness, God's providence, God's power. They affect our prayer--we pray passionately, fervently, then desperately, despairingly, and finally half-heartedly because we are secretly convinced that God is not going to answer us. They make us unable to give thanks, unable to enjoy and appreciate what God has already given us, because the big unanswered desire is still hovering over our hearts, a ghost of IF ONLY.
We feel inadequate. We feel weak. Limited. Unable. Small.
Whether fighting against temptation, dealing with a besetting sin that we keep falling into, our hopes and desires for the future, facing an impossible task, our most pressing emotional and physical needs, or our own sense of limitation and inability. God promises us grace. Grace through the Holy Spirit. Like He did for Zerubbabel.
I have an unexplicable fondness for this guy, maybe because he comes across as such an ordinary guy who was so bountifully blessed by God (can I be him already?) God was so gracious to him. So heartwarmingly, wonderfully gracious and affirming. When faced with what seemed like a truly impossible task--rebuilding the Temple (and symbolically, the society) of the Jews returned from exile, and dealing with the nationwide struggles of discouragement, self-pity, sin, fear, God reminded Zerubbabel of Who he should be looking to. For power. For encouragement. For help. Zerubbabel's name meant "God's Servant," a fitting title for a man who did his best to serve God and serve God's people, rising to meet the needs and challenges of his time.
God did not tell him that "to help you accomplish My work, here are otherworldly smarts, incredible energy and stamina, overflowing charisma and insight in dealing with difficult people, and an extra five hours to your day. And duct tape for troublesome uncooperative people." Though admittedly sometimes we're tempted to feel that that might just be the solution we need.
God didn't tell him that "this task you have set your mind on is too ambitious for someone of your caliber, you should settle for just contributing a little to the first stage, and leave the completion to someone more qualified."
God simply told him that His Spirit would enable him. Not by might. Not by power. (v 6)
The impossible would be accomplished, by the Holy Spirit. God gave him a vision of hope, of fruitfulness and assurance of His blessing. (v 7) God would bless his labours, not just the beginning, but allow him to see its completion. And though it might not seem promising now, the "day of small things" was not to be despised. Though there were many reasons to be discouraged, though it might seem like it would never end.
So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.
7 “What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’”
8 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 9 “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you.
10 “Who dares despise the day of small things, since the seven eyes of the Lord that range throughout the earth will rejoice when they see the chosen capstone in the hand of Zerubbabel?”
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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