Every morning when I wake up (which usually means going through four alarms, not including my sister's) I sit up, a veil of tangled hair helping me transition to facing light and the world. Gradually consciousness returns to me like clothes falling upon the nakedness of a sleepy mind, chasing away the last confused shreds of a dream, sweeping drowsy fluff away with increasingly vigorous strokes of the broom.
And I'm up.
Maybe not the nicest way to wake up, but effective. Most of the time.
I think this threshold moment, the transition between sleep and activity, pretty much embodies the two recurrent feelings/states that make up much of my life. (When I say this, I mean what comes to mind when I ask you to imagine an ordinary day in your life, the way you get through countless days without blinking an eye. Obviously I don't mean that I spend most of my time sitting on my bed in a permanent state of stupefaction, on the borderline between asleep and awake. Come on. Captain America took less than five minutes to 'defrost' and get back to reality after being frozen for seventy years, so.)
The adrenaline rush of getting things done, being productive (or trying to,) having a hundred tabs open in your brain, finishing one task to start on another.
And then the feeling when you've finally finished your day and plop onto the sofa--or the floor--or any surface. Browsing Instagram feeds on your phone and thinking vaguely, I should shower--I should sleep--but I'm too tired, or is it lazy, I've been rushing around the whole day, let me just sit here for a while and be a complete bum. When you turn off your brain, you could say. My family has a term for that--lumping. Very expressive. The down time, when you suddenly get tired from trying and doing so much, and just want to be a potato. Basically the whole spectrum from healthy R&R to brainless crash-burnout-phone-zombie-Lump-Mode.
These are the two recurrent modes which characterize my day to day life, whether I like it or not.
They are also, however, the things I tend not to think about when I'm examining my spiritual life. Talk about the illusion of the spiritual/secular divide. I'll consider my prayer time, how many times I managed to do my devotions this week, whether I fell back into pet sins, whether I lost my temper or owed someone an apology...but not those parts of my life.
It was consequently not what I expected when Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 draws the link between the individual's spiritual life, and (very 'secular') work, habits, and lifestyle. Search the Scriptures made this link explicit for people like me--Paul emphasized the importance of daily work and habits/life in the life of a Christian because it reflects his or her spiritual state.
They are not to be underestimated. Not to be swept under the rug and dismissed as 'not spiritual.'
Paul's usage of the terms "disorderliness" and "tradition" was not what I expected--something to do with addictions or lusts, doctrine and rituals, respectively. Instead, he uses those terms as characteristics of the way Christians' daily lives and lifestyles should be led. When I set myself the task of trying to define both terms within the context of those verses what emerged was:
disorderliness--laziness; selfish usage and exploitation of others; entitlement; busybodies; imposing on others out of pride.
tradition--humility, hard work, diligent in what is good, quietly being and setting a good example to others.
All these, Paul challenges us, are not abstract values, not constrained to the 'spiritual' component of our lives, but rather down-to-earth, constant characteristics of our day to day, everyday lifestyle. That I can see either characteristics of 'disorderliness' or 'tradition' in the way I work, in the expectations I have of others and myself, in the way I lump, even.
Our spiritual life isn't relegated to the minutes we spend reading our Bibles or praying each day, the way we run virtual lives on games. That those 'secular' parts of my day are not neutral, but are a continuation of what happens during my devotions. I was challenged to think twice on those parts of my day, the 'secular' parts when God is furthest from my mind simply because I didn't think what I was doing was important spiritually.
Maybe the very thought of having to see even those 'secular' parts of life in a spiritual light seems exhausting. The last thing you have energy to do. More self-examination and guilt-tripping and things to be careful about, oh my poor head, can I do this?
But Paul reminds us, both before and after his discussion of 'tradition' and 'disorderliness,' not to be discouraged...
"But the Lord is faithful, who will establish you and guard you from the evil one...
Now may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the patience of Christ...
...do not grow weary in doing good."
2 Thessalonians 3
O God, help me to realize that in all my life, the most important thing is my walk with You.
Not my dreams and hopes. Even though it feels like I can't live without them, can't identify myself without them.
Not my relationships with people. Even though they give me life, affirm me, build me.
Not for things to go well--success, not just in ostensibly 'secular' things, but even in good things; like church or family or the conversions of others even.
Not even what I do for You.
There are so many distractions, so many things crying to be done. So many things I could be. As the choices and the options dazzle me, as the opportunity cost paralyzes me, this life gets reduced to a list of tasks and accomplishments, of do's and don'ts, in both senses of the word--even my spiritual life.
It's ultimately my relationship with You.
This past year--did I love You better?
Do I understand You better?
I get carried away by the idea that I have to DO something in order to show that any one thing in my life is important to me, and I often focus too much, even when it comes to You, on whether I've "spent enough time," "done," "witnessed," even "glorified," that word which gets thrown around so easily that it loses its full weight and significance, and gets reduced to yet another to-do list.
I forget that we glorify God and enjoy Him.
That my relationship with You should be the true priority, rather than what I can do for You, or what I need to be.
That this coming year, I want my focus to emerge clearly, amid all my work, plans, relationships, goals, and responsibilities...
You and I. To grow in this relationship.
As this year draws to a close,
upon hitting 23 and finishing university,
trying to earn enough to survive on (ah yes, I've joined the age-old rat race!) trying to build up a career,
but most of all, trying to handle this slippery bar of soap called Life and Adulthood--
here are a few reflections I found myself writing down.
~Do your devotions. Make it a habit and you won't regret it. It's like exercise. Making it a habit doesn't mean you're not going to struggle with it, (look at me, making resolutions on this for the third? fourth? year running) but it definitely helps.
~Come to church. Just come. Don't make excuses. There will always be reasons, no matter what time in your life, no matter your age, for you not to come, and it will never really be 'easier' at any one point in life, the way you imagine it will be, than it is now.
~Accept and use the church family as the community God has given to help and encourage you in your spiritual walk. Make friends. Find accountability partners. Find people to pray for, and people to pray for you. Learn to share burdens, griefs, and joys, learn to be vulnerable. Learn to love and walk together with people who are different from you, in age, in backgrounds, in culture, in personality.
~Perspective on life. This has been one of the greatest helps to me. Having the perspective to know that what you feel now--no matter how intensely--is not the ultimate meaning, or the most accurate representation of this event/time. Whether failing a test, losing a relationship, or making a stupid mistake, our emotions are strong, and it is devastating if we accept that what we feel/think then to be the one life-long interpretation of what happened. Which is seldom the case, as countless (often, forgotten) journal entries have proven repeatedly to me.
~Priorities. Realize that one of the biggest lessons during this period of life and the start of independence is discovering, deciding, and maintaining priorities. There will be sacrifices, but doesn't every choice we make--no matter what--result in some sort of sacrifice? (opportunity cost is the term I'm looking for, thanks economics) Being able to accept that and make our decisions based on that is sobering but also empowering.
~Don't cut your body short. Don't run on caffeine. Drink water. Get more sleep than a bare minimum, and pull as few all nighters as possible. Just because you can get away with it now doesn't mean you should. Annnnd it really contributes to your overall mood/attitude, especially if you've been feeling miserable and out of control with your life.
~Learn to say no. Without feeling it comes with personal implications. Without feeling the pressure to explain and defend yourself, without feeling guilty or inadequate. Consciously keep from over-committing yourself (this relates to priorities) Again, one of the biggest lessons I had to learn--but with the biggest returns.
~Spend time with people who aren't in your peer group or category--not just in terms of age; culturally, lingually, in social-background etc etc. Learn to widen your horizons and appreciate differences.
~Apologize. This takes courage and humility, and few people nowadays--sadly--have that. As Christians, this is one area that you can clearly be a witness, make a difference in. To your younger sibling, to someone you don't like, to your parents, to a kid, to someone who's been condescending to you. It's tough, but worth it.
~Don't be afraid to admit you don't know something, or to try something you're not good at, or to acknowledge your failures. It's very hard, especially when we're so anxious to appear grown-up--responsible--intelligent--to convince others, but most importantly ourselves, that we 'have our shit together,' that we are cool--poised--confident. But really. We're not actually, and it's hugely liberating, if scary, to acknowledge that that's okay. Because often we are our most merciless critics. I thought I'd outgrown this with my teen years but surprise, it just took an a different aspect, as an adult!
~Learn to listen. Learn also to talk--about what matters. As young people we tend to be all wrapped up in our own lives, which seem so much more exciting and important than say an elderly person's nostalgia or a child's breaking news. Sometimes we need to patiently--and humbly--learn to listen. (Of course, there's the flip-side too; but I personally tend to stray on the talk-too-much side of the spectrum)
Life goes by so fast. New Year's Eve celebrations and the transition they represent go by like fireworks that disappear almost instantly, and the next thing you know you're left in the alien darkness again, the same and yet different; feeling the uncomfortable deja vu of having done this so many times before, the novelty wearing off for that reason and not because you're any more prepared or confident than you were last year. I hope that by stopping and reflecting on it I can better understand and appreciate my experiences, myself, this gift of life I was given. To better use it.
If we live day to day without joy, it's a good indicator that we have lost sight of Christ's redeeming work.
I heard that in a sermon a while ago, and it resonated strongly with me. As it would with anyone.
Lift up your heart, we sing in church. Lift up your voice, rejoice, again I say, rejoice! We all want to experience this life-changing, steadfast joy--no weak common emotion like happiness, mind you, but something deeper and fiercer and stronger, as the word choice conveys.
Is it a huge, impossible challenge for you to have a happy life, to find contentment in your everyday? For so many years I lived with the impression that happiness lay several boxes away. Friends. Success. Affirmation. Aesthetics. Comfort. Tick those boxes and you've completed the formula for happiness, no?
Even as Christians, we still tend to have the same mentality. To experience the "joy of the Lord" that Nehemiah 8:10 talks about is such a surreal, transient thing that we hardly dare talk about it, maybe dismiss it as "charismatic", (*cough Reformed background weakness cough*) assume that we're not 'holy' enough to have reached that stage of loving God, we've got to first improve our spiritual disciplines and kick those bad habits entirely and...
I think that when we've lost sight of this joy that we as Christians are entitled to have, it's because we've lost sight of Christ--in our focus on doing things for Him, we neglect to enjoy Him. Amid all the distractions of our busy lives, our faith soon gets reduced to another set of to-do's. Read the Bible more. Get devotions in every day. Reach out to others.
But we forget that we don't have to have ticked all these boxes--an impossible task, by the way, at least while we're here struggling through the gory process of sanctification--to enjoy Him. That His joy, peace, and love are tangible in our lives, are directly relevant to our lives, in the midst of all we haven't done, shouldn't have done.
I think that is possibly the biggest lesson I've learnt this year. When I stopped to reflect on the past year and consider how I'd grown spiritually, my first response was guilt and discouragement. In so many of the ways I'd determined to grow this year--pray more! have more courage to talk about Christ! be more patient and loving!--I'd failed. Not even failed to make progress; in some cases, actually regressed. And so I felt, on the heels of that realization, that no, I hadn't "grown spiritually" much this year.
But the next moment I reconsidered that conclusion. Though I didn't have any ticked boxes or graphs to show for it, I felt that wasn't entirely true. This year has been a difficult year for me, a year full of change and often weariness. Of realizations that one by one take a little bit of sparkle away from how you see the world, the future. But amidst all that struggling, all the failure, even, I felt as though one lesson had cleared through the mist--learning to see how the person of God relates directly to my life, learning to appreciate and understand the significance of God's attributes.
And that enabled me to experience for the first time a kind of durable, everyday joy--a taste of the "peace which surpasses all understanding;" (Philippians 4:7) of why we call Him the "God of all comfort." (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
I think I won't do a good job explaining this, but I can only try.
For example. So many times I found myself repeatedly asking for forgiveness, for the same besetting sin, that even I got frustrated at myself, almost couldn't dare to imagine that God hadn't lost patience with me by now, that I hadn't made a mockery of Christ's atonement for me. Humanly speaking, there was no reason why not. I ran out of excuses. Forced to face, exhausted and speechless, the unpleasant fact that I just clung too tightly to sin.
And that was when I realized anew what GRACE and MERCY, those abstract, often dry terms which we use to describe God, actually meant. Their very real and direct application to my life--right now. Not only at the point of my conversion, but as a necessary and vital part of today, of what gave me hope, what encouraged me.
Our joy--as our hope, our peace, and so much more--is steadfast and strong because it does not depend on us. On our current mood or our current situation. It is based on Him, on Who He is; and that never changes, never fails us, is never less than we need.
This year, in different ways and over different stages, I've been realizing slowly just how significant each one of God's attributes are to me. A newfound appreciation and understanding of Who He is, and simultaneously who I am; and how He changes my life. I'd memorized in the Shorter Catechism Who God is:
God is spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.
But what does that actually mean?
To put it more specifically--what does that mean for my life, today?
This coming year, no matter what it brings for you--pain, affirmation, loss, growth, change--may you answer that question for yourself.
Recently I came back from a trip to China, where we visited a children's home my church has been involved with for the past few years. Almost every year we visit them and spend a day there; bring some food, winter clothing, etc...run some games and workshops for them, just get to know them and give them a good time. It's a small children's home, called The Father's House; basically just Brother Long and his wife opening up their home and family to needy children from the village they came from, so that it feels like a big family. In fact, initially I didn't even realize two of the children among the group were actually Brother Long's own children. There are a handful of children, whatever the house and their means can hold comfortably, around 10+ each time we visit. Some of these children are orphans, others are unwanted or abandoned, some just from very poor families. Being able to come here means getting to go to school--most of them finish highschool there--being cared for, getting the opportunity to learn about God, and most of all, having a safe place and a loving community to grow up in. I remember peeking into the girls' room and being struck by how, despite the multiple bunk beds, it had that undeniable touch of individual little girl personalities; scraps of pink tulle made into pretty canopies and curtains over the beds, random ribbons, colourful stationery scattered over the desk, stuff toys in different stages of wear/belovedness, dozens of prized drawings and paintings the proud artists had stuck up on the walls.
During the many visits I've made, I've slowly found out more about the different types of problems and needs that these children's presence there reflects. There was a brother and sister whose father was killed in a construction accident at work, whose mother ran off and left them to live with their grandma until she died--at which time they were only around six and ten, roughly. There was a boy with a crippled hand, from a severe burn. There was a little girl who had been abandoned by her mother and visibly crushed by the trauma of it. She had large, intense wide-set eyes, a small stern unsmiling mouth, and watched you dully, if warily, from under her brows, with a strangely passive and detached look for such a young child. We asked her what was her favourite colour and finally got to hear her voice when she whispered, "gray." This year I was startled to recognize her, to see how much she had recovered. She held her head up, turned her head easily to look at things that interested her, and I even saw her laugh. One photo caught her laughing and every time I look at it I realize how wonderfully it changes her.
This trip, I ran a drawstring bag printing workshop, using fabric paints and stencils we cut from the plasticated paper used to wrap printing paper, ironed on (thanks Pinterest.) They were so excited it was worth the painstaking packing of those glass bottles of fabric paint--inside a plastic box, wadded recklessly with tissue, sealed with tape, inside a ziplock bag, and then another plastic bag. Over the top, but I had visions of them smashing during transit and dyeing all my clothes irrevocably.
A friend had also lent us a bag of hand puppets to play with there, and that really brought out the smiles as you can see from the photo I took with some of the girls--the chipmunk especially was a hit (my own favourite as well! It was a close toss up with the porcupine though.)
Upon finishing high school most of these children move out and find work in the city, support themselves. There are so many other needy, younger ones to take their place, after all. However, coming from my first-world background, I can barely imagine having to support yourself on your own at such a young age. It's intimidating enough as an young adult privileged enough to have a university degree, a skill set, and of course the safety net of loving parents whom you can always rely on for food and board (shoutout to parents who cheerfully support poor-student-children, especially Lit graduates!) I've felt so burdened thinking about their predicament--yet I can't think of a way in which I could help provide any alternative or long-term help, and the sense of helplessness is crippling. It was a time to remember that, as with myself and my own fears, I had to learn to trust God's providence and loving nature, even as I did my best to do something about it.
I know I've never posted anything like this before, mainly because I wasn't sure how helpful it would be, also because I don't pretend to understand or know the extent of the problems or situation over there. But every time I go, I am humbled. Challenged. And at the same time, I still feel so helpless when it comes to working real, long-term change, contributing to a real solution. As with any social problem or need. However this trip I was encouraged by the amazing people I met to do what I can and not belittle it too much; to have faith that God works in every loving heart, whether manifested in thousands of dollars, or a hug, or perhaps even just a happy afternoon and a special meal for those children.
One of their main supporters put up this website to encourage and help the ministry that's going on there, and raise awareness for the social needs and problems that it addresses. Here, even if you have no other way to help, you can give a School Bag, which will help a needy child from the village. I've been to some of these villages and seen the schools, firsthand, and heard from the locals what it means for a child to attend school--daily hikes to and fro that take several hours, sometimes across whole mountains; living in school and only coming back on the weekends, because the distance is too far, and that's the only school in your vicinity. For someone like me, growing in tiny Singapore with its state-of-the-arts (well, most of the time) public transport system, I can't fathom travelling so far every day for an education. Come on, I was homeschooled--I virtually lived in my school, after all. An hour long commute on the train is nothing compared to the hike up and down the steep mountain valleys and hills our guide carelessly beckoned at--"you see that small building down there? That's the school. Yes, I went there when I was small. Hiked from the village back there and down here and up that to get there. Took a couple of hours." Me, still panting from the climb up that one hill--"Oh, well, really!"
So do take a look, and at the least, add something to your prayer list.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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