Thanksgiving

I don't know much about the holiday, neither had I ever celebrated Thanksgiving. But it's an apt time to finish a post that I had been drafting on and off for months. I wanted to complete it because this is the space in which I had often expressed how exasperating church life is in the past year.

It hasn't always been so. I had often regarded church and fellowship to be family. From the friendships and fights during my childhood years, to the medical fellowship at NUS which prepared me for the challenges of group dynamics and hospital life during clinical years (for which, I will always be immensely grateful for). Then more recently, there was the church community I loved, which continued to be an encouragement to keep loving, as I remember how I was blessed by their warm hospitality which arose from their faith in God.

The troublesome life of a troubled church goer

For sure, church life is troublesome. Fellowship is accompanied by a whole range of difficult emotions - sadness at not having friends, hatred when I feel snubbed, venomous envy when I compare my own talents or "role" in the church to others, being proud or self righteous as I judge the knowledge, abilities, motives, manners, and attitudes of others (that's hypocritical, isn't it).

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? - Matthew 7:3

I usually look forward to attending Sunday service. Not so much with the regular service I attend but more often on the odd occasion when I would find myself at other churches, I would be distracted by everything - the building would be too bright and flash (money hungry?), the organ too grand, there would be one too many overdressed girls with heavy make up (are you there to pick up?), the handshakes feel insincere, the songs too repetitive, lyrics without enough depth, the clapping too enthusiastic, the band too loud, the singers were clearly showing off, the pastor told too many anecdotes, the teaching was unclear, the offering tray too transparent, they talked about loving your neighbours but no one stopped to say hello after service... and so on and so forth.

But your (my) attitude and focus as you walk in through those doors, shapes everything. Am I really here to worship God and love my brothers and sisters? Am I here to serve or be served?

Since returning last year, and even from the time I first arrived almost six years ago now, I had a difficult time feeling "at home" in M. In amusement I recall spending first year at a Cantonese church with services translated to Mandarin or English. Many youth group members spoke good English, but spoke Cantonese anyway despite knowing that I could not understand. Later I explored many churches before settling at where I am now. Yet, here, I have always struggled with being from an Asian but somewhat different culture, I often felt disappointed with cliques, with superficial conversations, lack of honest sharing and prayer, with the general reluctance to ask a genuine how are you, and with people still ask me if I am back for just the weekend (fair enough though, I do come and go often - to rotations, to conferences, home for holidays). Less so now, but occasionally, I would be offended about not being invited to this outing, farewell party, dinner, or road trip. At my birthday gathering his year I was reminded of how richly I was blessed with close friends from various areas of my life - except it was also a stark reminder of how few close Christian friends I had, even after all these years in my regular fellowship.

In my previous Bible study group the next youngest people were in their forties, and the mean age of the group was probably in their sixties. So, perhaps being used to falling on the younger end of the age spectrum, in my student fellowship group, I came to realise a novel way in which I did not fit in - I feel old, ha ha. Some are many years younger chronologically. Some are not but have views of life, studies, friendships and relationships, or have ways of talking, joking, pranking and relating to people, which I could have probably related to better, was I several years younger. Not that I am better at growing up. But having a growing relationship with God as I lived away from home, moved here and there, interstate and overseas, got to know groups of new people, old and young, of my culture and of different backgrounds, and the sheer number of years spent in university, may have accelerated that shift a little more, towards adulthood.

Memorable encouragements, incidents, and lessons

"Why don't you try another church?" I was asked many times. I had always felt that I saw a purpose of being here, though I did not always enjoy it. I think, I saw that there were people to care for and share God's love with through this fellowship, and lessons for myself to learn too. I'm thankful for God's grace to help me not merely persevere, but find joy and thankfulness midst my troublesome feelings. I want to remember these times of encouragement through writing.

On weeks when I was able to focus on serving God, I recognised that not being knit in the "mainstream" social group, I sympathised with and was more able to spend time with those who were new, from different backgrounds, or those who were also often alone. I saw how, being non Singaporean non Malaysians, I could more readily understand how international students who were from other countries felt when they were not included socially, or struggled to understand the jokes and cultural references. I saw how English class made for creative ways to present God's message; I also saw, how my frivolous love of singing karaoke, and (thankfully) being able to speak simple Mandarin, helped me to better connect with many students, not only in class but socially too.

Indeed, English class has been an important area of joy and encouragement. In class I often appreciated the input of the other teachers as they transformed a simple lesson into a vivid imagery of God's love, or helped to articulate the gospel clearly and concisely in a way I could not. During my trips overseas at the end of last year, I was surprised at the effort in which those who I had looked out for in M were in turn, acting as hosts in their home cities. For the first time, I had friends in the city of my childhood to take me out - my friends, not my cousins, not cousin's friends, not family friends, not family friend's children. I was inspired too to pray and speak to my own extended family, as I saw the passion and clarity in which these relatively new believers shared God's love to their family and friends back home. Back in M, I was touched by the generosity of one of the students who brought his own ingredients to prepare multiple dishes from his national cuisine in big pots, in additional to our usual pasta dinner. Perhaps ashamed also - for our focus in planning for communal meals is often to minimise costs, whereas his main concern here was to share a delicious feast with each of us, as a token of his heartfelt appreciation.

There were other gentle nudges to keep going with fellowship too. I was weary and growing in discontentment with fellowship during those months, when the door unexpectedly opened one evening. I had prepared to attend the fellowship that Friday evening, but was late and not in the mood to face anyone after a series of bitter arguments. As I walked past the rarely used side door on my way home, the pastor opened the door and was almost directly in front of us. He assumed we were walking in and held out the door, and we felt too awkward to refuse. Throughout the fellowship that evening, I felt that more than an amusing coincidence, this incident was a reminder and glimpse of God's gracious and loving call to come to him just as we were.

Weeks later, there was one morning when I suddenly remembered to give thanks for the church service I take for granted Sunday after Sunday. Giving thanks for the song leaders, musicians and singers, who used their gifts to help us sing praises, to think about God's character, and reflect on his grace. For those who prepared our hearts for communion through their readings and prayers, so that we too might be encouraged to reflect on Christ's death for our sins, and what this means for our lives today. For the pastor and guest speakers who, week after week, faithfully teach from the Bible so that we are better able to not only understand, but also interpret the word for ourselves, in context. For the blessing church is every week, to reflect on my focus throughout the week, to deal with my sins. How effective thankfulness is, in turning cynicism and dislike for others to a heart which is more inclined to unity in Christ, and one which is more willing to praise God!

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. - Colossians 3:15-16

For a period of time I found it difficult to respect my Bible study leaders who were younger, or whom I deemed to be less mature in their spiritual life and understanding of the Word. Frankly, I was rather offended that they were asked to lead Bible study while I was not. Yet I am thankful for those seasons, in helping me to see that serving God goes beyond holding a recognisable title or leadership role - for example, being faithful through participating and prompting discussion, words of encouragement to those who do lead, or praying and caring for fellow group members. In an almost amusing way, I am thankful for coming face to face with the truth of the unpleasant remark of - "W, you are so up yourself!" It is only in seeing my pride that I could reflect upon the meaning of, and pray for an attitude of humility and unity. Perhaps these opportunities to work on a heart of service was important, and in this case, more important to God than actively serving in those roles. No wonder Paul instructs Timothy, regarding the choice of overseers and deacons:

He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgement as the devil. - 1 Timothy 3:6

As the year of fellowship gatherings come to an end, I can say honestly express my gratitude for the privilege it is to come together as a spiritual family each week. Even more in times away, do I realise how important these routines are, in spurring me along to spend time with God, talk about God, continue to learn to live a life worthy of God. Time alone with God is important, but so is learning and discussing with others. I think even in my own posts on Bible passages I can see the synergy of these two elements at work - whilst I spend much time reflecting alone, much of the content of those posts can be credited to those who brought the Word to life through sermons, or helped me to understand through discussion in Bible studies. It is also a joy and valuable growing process, to serve in unity with other Christians despite our differences and imperfections. May we continue to be thankful, growing in love and meaningful fellowship, with unity in ministry, to the glory of our God!

One Voice

Father we ask of You this day, come and heal our land.
Knit our hearts together, that Your glory might be seen in us;
Then the world will know that Jesus Christ is Lord!


Now is the time for you and I to join our hearts in praise.
That the name of Jesus, will be lifted high above the earth,
Then the world will know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

       
Let us be one voice that glorifies Your name.

Let us be one voice declaring that You reign.
Let us be one voice in love and harmony,
And we pray O God, grant us unity.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I totally feel you (: But then, everytime when I look back, I realise that everything that we feel and see and experience is part of God's plan to help us grow and to help us become closer to him. I give thanks to God for your honesty and for helping me realise that I am not alone. I give thanks to God because through our imperfections we see his perfection. Our God is really an awesome God (:

1 Timothy 4:4
For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.

God bless (:

Winnie said...

hey, glad you found the reflections helpful :) thanks for leaving a comment too, do I know you from somewhere / in real life?

I think like what you said, romans 8:28-30 also reminds us of how all things we experience are used according to God's good purposes for us who trust in him (including his purpose for our growth and transformation into Christ-likeness)

in all that you go through, may you continue to draw closer to God too!

 

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