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Faith of the ‘what if’

What if you are wheelchair bound and your recent operation is the first of the two you had to go through?

What if you are the main caregiver of your aged parents, one of whom is also wheelchair bound like yourself?

What if your aged parents who have never being apart in their 70 years of marriage now face the prospect of moving into different nursing home ‘cos of illness and financial constraints?

What if your only child’s only son had Asperger and they live hundreds of miles away for all of you to be of support to each other?

Except these are not ‘what-ifs’ for G. This is her life.

And my faith, my so-called faith pales in the light of hers. My faith seems like a walk in the park even though it didn’t seem like it sometimes. Hers, on the other hand, seems like that of an athlete in a hurdles race.

Ironically it was me who broke down while praying for her. She didn’t even tear when she shared with me earlier. That goes to show the strength of her inner being as compared to mine.

And before going onstage to emcee at the church service later, I asked God for a word to encourage His people, particularly G. I was led to read Habbukuk 3: 17 – 19 (The Message):

“Though the cherry trees don’t blossom and the strawberries don’t ripen, Though the apples are worm-eaten and the wheat fields stunted, Though the sheep pens are sheepless and the cattle barns empty, I’m singing joyful praise to God. I’m turning cartwheels of joy to my Savior God. Counting on God’s Rule to prevail, I take heart and gain strength. I run like a deer. I feel like I’m king of the mountain!”

Still, I cried when we were worshipping God. I had no answer why certain things happen to certain people. But this I know – He gives grace and strength when we never thought they existed because I saw them in G today.

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extraordinary week, so far

Sharing stories – On Sunday, we had Pastor Charlie and his wife over for dinner for the first time. He was the reason we kept returning to the church when we first visited. His friendliness and down to earth nature was so evident even in our first encounter with him. Dinner lasted three hours and it would have gone on longer if not for the fact that the next day was Monday. It is always refreshing to interact with the pastors outside their main “domain”, the church, and see the humanity that lies beneath.

Ministry at work – On Monday, I took a staff out for coffee when I sensed she wasn’t herself that morning. For an hour, in between sobs she shared her anger and pain from a relationship. I just held her hand and listened. I wished I was brave enough to pray with her there and then so she knew there is a God who cares…

Dinner with the boys – That night, we invited two young adults over for a roasted dinner. Good meals are always a great start! We chatted and caught up with one another. One is getting married in a year’s time; the other is still in uni. We shared about how we were travelling in life and some God-stuff. And I hoped the boys also got to know us better.

Church Connect group – On Wednesday, we had our fortnightly meeting again. The topic that night was the grace of God. And everyone shared about how their faith journey began. There were ten of us. I looked around the room and saw the most diverse bunch of people before me. Just in terms of age, we were ranging from 18 to 41 years old. Unsurprisingly, everyone was at different life stage – married couple, mother-to-be, students, working adults. Yet most of us have been meeting fortnightly for two years now since CS and I started the group. I felt blessed to be part of a group that God had brought together – a bunch of people who under normal circumstances, wouldn’t be hanging out together; yet here we are, fellow travel companions on a faith journey.

Heart-to-heart – On Thursday, I received an email from a young adult who shared openly about her disappointment and hurt from a friendship. I deliberated over what to write, stayed back after work and replied to her email. The same night, I chatted with another young adult about his struggle on how to handle a situation he was in. We disagreed at some point but there was no love lost. And I ended our hour-long chat by praying with him. In both instances, I made it a point to share from my own personal experiences. It is so easy to talk in cliches but what if it is me who is in the situation? Would I do likewise? I am learning to be authentic.

Is it any ‘coincidence’ that all these encounters happened at the time I’ve been thinking about relationships and community in our 21st century from one of the books I’ve been reading ‘Above the Line’ ? And attending Edmund Chan’s discipleship conference two weeks ago was a reiteration of what has been on my heart lately. Discipleship – the philosophy and its practical outworking in my life; I think I am slowly getting a glimpse of that…

“biblical Christianity assumes disciples of Jesus are being transformed by life changing encounters with God, a transformation that results in qualities such as gentleness, meekness, and humility being expressed deeply and regularly in the way Christians relate to one another.” Peter McHugh

arrgh…there’s a tear in my skirt!

Yesterday I woke up earlier than I usually do on Sundays to spend some time reading God’s word. I was also the emcee for church worship service later and had wanted to prepare myself for that.

I had what I thought was a good time with God. Lately, I think I am learning to read God’s word simply for what it’s worth. Not trying to “apply” it to any situation I am facing. Not trying to “read” into the Bible what it could be saying to me. Just simply reading His word for its own sake. No hidden agenda of asking God to show me direction, grant me revelation or give me signs. Not that any of these is wrong, of course. But I think I am learning to simply enjoy God for who He is as revealed in His word.

And that was what I did yesterday morning; had a great time and thought I was ready to worship God in church later. I was about to leave the house, took one last look in the mirror and that’s when I noticed a small tear at the hem of my skirt.

Arrgh…I sighed or rather, growled. “I am going on stage later and the whole church is going to notice the tear!” I debated whether I should change but time was running out, so I wore the skirt.

But honestly, I was still fretting when I got into the car. And then a prompting:

“It certainly didn’t take you very long to lose your focus on Me, did it?”

Then I realized it was just minutes ago that I thought I had a great time with God and was ready to worship Him in church later. And now I am fretting over a slight tear at the hem of my skirt.
“Don’t major on the minor” was the next thing I heard. And I had to repeat that to myself a few times while on the way to church because frankly, I didn’t ‘feel’ great.

But by the time we arrived in church, I was over it. So I decided to share that little episode with the church to encourage them to leave aside whatever may be on their mind that morning, and focus on worshipping God. Yes, I showed everyone the little tear at the hem of my skirt on stage!

God really has a sense of humour because he turned what would otherwise be a humdrum incident into a teachable moment for me.

Dear Pastor George…

As a young graduate, my first job was working as a secretary to one of the lead pastors in my home church which I grew up in. And so for three and a half years, I was blessed to work closely under a man who is not only a great boss but who has become for me, an inspiring role model. And after 15 years of working life, a huge part of my work ethos is influenced by him. So I decided to email him today:

Dear Pastor George

This is a long overdue letter from me but I thought ‘hey,it’s better late than never’!

It’s been four years since Chin Seng and I moved to Perth. I am now working in a local university. As I entered into my third year working here, I found myself reflecting where I’d come from in my working life journey. That’s when I realized a huge part of my work ethos has been influenced by you. And I’d never told you but I’ve always considered you to be a mentor during those years we worked together. In my current role, I have a fair share of management and leadership responsibility. So I have been reminded of you on occasions. I really wanted to appreciate you for teaching me, and more importantly, modeling for me, these lessons:
1. ‘Expect what you inspect’ – if something is worth doing, it is worth investing my time to make sure it is doing well
2. ‘Spirit of excellence’ – it can never be perfect but at least we have given our best
3. ‘Contingency, contingency, contingency’ – it’s not good enough to have a contingency plan, we need to have contingency plan for the contingency plan!
4. ‘I’ll back you up’ – supporting staff in their decisions not just in my words but through my actions
5. ‘You can do it’ – empowering staff to go beyond their own perceived limitation
6. ‘The importance of follow-up’ – never forget to follow up with a phone call or email or both!
7. ‘Sense of purpose and destiny’ – it is never about how much money one makes but the difference one makes in the lives of others

So really, this is a thank-you note.

1. Thank you for being a godly leader who always seeks to do what is right according to what God has placed upon your heart, no matter what
2. Thank you for being a leader who demonstrates you are a follower first of all
3. Thank you for being a courageous leader who never walks away from a challenging situation
4. Thank you for being a leader who tempers justice with mercy
5. Thank you for being a leader who leads louder through your walk than your talk
6. Thank you for being a leader who is real because you would share candidly about your struggles
7. Thank you for being the best boss one could ever have, especially to a young graduate who just started on her first job!

As I journeyed on in my working life, you will continue to be an inspiration to me. It is my desire that I will, do for others who come along my way, what you’ve done for me.

Yours,
Ervina

savoring anne lamott – part two

page 152: (on finding yourself or someone you know in a ‘bad’ situation) “Sometimes we let them resist finding any meaning or solace in anything that had to do with their daughter’s diagnosis…to stop trying to make things come out better than they were. We let them spew when they needed to; we offered the gift of no comfort when there being no comfort was where they had landed.”

page 163: “I believe that when all is said and done, all you can do is to show up for someone in crisis, which seems so inadequate. But then when you do, it can radically change everything. Your there-ness, your stepping into a sacred parent’s line of vision, can be life-giving, because often everyone else is hiding…so you keep them company when it feels like the whole world is falling apart, and your being there says that just for this moment, this one tiny piece of the world is OK, or is at least better.”

page 167: (on finding God in the ordinary) “…sometimes when you need to feel the all-embracing nature of God, paradoxically you need to hang out in ordinariness, in daily ritual and comfort.”

page 197: (on her battle with bulimia) “Over the years my body has not gotten firmer. Just the opposite in fact. But when I feel fattest and flabbiest and most repulsive, I try to remember that gravity speaks…I do not live in my thighs or in my droopy butt. I live in joy and motion and cover-ups. I live in the nourishment of food and the sun and the warmth of the people who love me.”

page 213: (on forgiveness) “Who was it who said that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past?”

page 219: (on family) “…my family is like this old sweater – it keeps unraveling, but then someone figures out how to sew it up one more time; it has lumps and then it unravels again, but you can still wear it; and it still keeps away the chill.”

page 219 (on forgiveness and family) “…families are definitely the training ground for forgiveness. At some point you pardon the people in your family for being stuck together in all their weirdness.”

page 255 (on God’s love) “The mystery of God’s love as I understand it is that God loves the man who was being mean to his dog as much as he loves babies. So of course he loves old ordinary me, even or especially at my most scared and petty and mean and obsessive. Loves me; chooses me.”

I have to say discovering Anne Lamott and her works was one of my literary highlights of the year. I know, I am a nerd. One reason why I’d really enjoyed ‘Traveling Mercies’ was her raw honesty with herself and her readers. Here’s someone who:

  • was an alcoholic and drug addict
  • was bulimic
  • had a child out of wedlock and didn’t seem to get married after all
  • wears dreadlocks in her 40s cos she has had enough of her unruly mess of hair
  • frets about finding the ‘right’ man
  • struggles to love and accept her ageing mother sometimes (gasp, did she really confess to that?!)
  • uses swear words in her book (really, should a Christian even do that!)

You know, Anne probably wouldn’t be ranking very high in the typical Christian circle. Yet how many of us can identify with her struggles and wish we were as honest as she was about it? No pretenses; not trying to appear all-put-together; just speaking from one’s heart to the other.

Godspeaks

I woke up yesterday morning in the midst of the howling winds and decided to do a bit of Bible reading before church afterwards. Not my usual practice for a Sunday to be honest.

Our church is doing ‘Reading through the Bible in one year’ and so everyone has a booklet to help with the daily Bible reading. One of  yesterday’s passages was Proverbs 23: 19-21:
“Oh listen, dear child—become wise; point your life in the right direction. Don’t drink too much wine and get drunk; don’t eat too much food and get fat. Drunks and gluttons will end up on skid row, in a stupor and dressed in rags.

At first glance, those verses didn’t seem to have anything to do with me.

Then a thought: Am I thinking about food more than I think about God? Do I spend more time baking and reading cook books more than I do on the things of God? Yes, on both counts. I hung my head in shame. Suddenly, the word ‘glutton’ doesn’t seem as irrelevant as before.

It’s interesting how I am perhaps more on my guard against the ‘blatant’ sins but happily oblivious to the ‘subtle’ ones in my life – ‘respectable’ sins, as Jerry Bridges titles it in one of his books.

savoring anne lamott

I am currently reading my second Anne Lamott book, ‘Traveling Mercies‘ and enjoying it. Be warned though, this is not your usual read about how a hippie/intellectual-turned Christian-and-so-she-lived-happily-after. In fact, her faith journey is fraught with accounts of drugs, alcohol, numerous relationships, unwanted pregnancies. But her honest, brutal accounts of how God meets her in some of her most vulnerable moments leave me in awe of God’s amazing grace. In fact, when I shared parts of her story with CS, his candid response was ‘if I am God, I’d have walked away.’ Am I glad that God is God and none of us will ever be!

For fear of doing a dismal job in paraphrasing her, here are snippets from her book:

pg 43: (on what it means to be ‘saved’ in the Christian jargon) “I guess it’s like discovering you’re on the shelf of a pawnshop, dusty and forgotten and maybe not worth very much. But Jesus comes in and tells the pawnbroker, ‘I’ll take her place on the shelf. Let her go outside again.'”

pg 68: (on grief when she lost her best friend to cancer) “…what I’ve discovered since is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it.”

“…the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart.”

pg 75: (on life) “Life does not seem to present itself to me for my convenience, to box itself up nicely so I can write about it with wisdom and a point to make before putting it on a shelf somewhere.”

pg 89: (chapter on church, people, steeple)

Late Fragment – Raymond Carver

And did you get what

you wanted from this life even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

pg 97: (about an old lady from church who was going blind in her eighties) “..that was heroic of her, that it spoke of such integrity to refuse to pretend that you’re doing well just so to help other people deal with the fact that sometimes we face an impossible loss.”

pg 100: (on church) “The church became my home in the old meaning of home – that it’s where, when you show up, they have to let you in.”

pg 103: (on community) “I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said Do the best you can with these, they will have to do. And mostly, against all odds, they’re enough.”

pg 106: (how the book’s title was derived) “This is what they (the old people at church) always say when one of us goes off for a while. Traveling mercies: love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound.”

pg 138 & 139: (on grace) “I know nothing, except what everyone knows – if there when Grace dances, I should dance.” (W.H. Auden)

“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

And my favourite quote from the book thus far:

pg 145: (by her son Sam aged seven) “I think I already understand about life: pretty good, some problems.”

one.life by Scot McKnight

At the church camp debrief this week, the pastor passed me this book and wanted me to see if we could do a book club about it with the young adults. I’d meant to just quickly flipped through it since I am reading ‘Blue like Jazz’ by Donald Miller and really want to get right into it. However, I was hooked from the start reading his ‘first words’. And I am surprised at how ‘read-able’ the book is considering that he is a college professor with PhD in religious studies but writes crisply and concisely without fanciful words of triple or quadruple syllabuses.

I found myself challenged by the questions thrown at me so far: ‘What is a Christian?’ ‘What do I think of whenever I read Jesus’ mention of the kingdom of God?’ ‘Did Jesus come just to die for my sins and get me to heaven?’ ‘Why did Jesus come?’

On a lighter note, I couldn’t help but laugh at his ‘subtle’ product endorsements about Apple (and I can hear all die-hard Apple fans go ‘YES!’). Here’s a funny one:

“…I’m hardly an objective reporter, but I have to say there’s nothing like a Mac. Everything all the other writing machines wanted to be when they were little boys and girls is what this adult machine is. (Ok, maybe you’re not biased in my direction as a writer. So, take phones – and skip from those phones that hung on a walls to the early Motorola boxy things and on to those Nokias until you get to…yes…an iPhone. Same company. Same dream come true. Just sayin’.).”

blog reads

This has been a ‘thought-ful’ week from the various regular blog posts I follow:

1) What gets me out of bed every morning – Chris Guillebeau whose goal is to visit EVERY country in the world by  April 7, 2013 (that’s when he turned 35) and he’s done 151 countries so far – “what if you didn’t have the obligation; what would you get out of bed in the mornings for if it was completely up to you?”

2) Savouring the moment – beautifully worded by Andrea from Portland. Almost poetry. Wish I could write like that – “one moment folds into the next and then it’s over. and I am left hoping maybe this one will stick.”

3) Life Happens while you are doing something else – another well-written article by Donald Miller – “What gets built with God’s help, then, is less tangible. The Kingdom of God, at least on earth in our time, is perhaps a relational construct.”

4) Gotta share Improv Musical – a musical parody on social media in our daily life. Hilarious but oh-so-true!

5) Back to Silence – A local Freo blogger that I follow to know what’s going on in my community. I couldn’t agree more with him on this – “Why do people need all that constant music. Are they afraid silence will force them to think and connect with the inner self?” Which is why I love to drive in silence unless I am on a roadtrip. I had never found that weird until friends who had sat in my car were surprised that I don’t have any radio or music on while driving. But that’s how I like it. It is my quiet time when I can be still before God and even myself. When is the last time you did that?

innovation meets tradition

Finally I got myself a parallel Bible – The New King James Version and The Message.

Reading the preface to The Message, I was surprised to learn that Eugene Peterson was a former Bible-teacher-turned-pastor. In his own words, “The Message grew from the soil of forty years of pastoral work”. Why? “I lived in two language worlds, the world of the Bible and the world of Today. I had always assumed they were the same world. But these people didn’t see it that way. So out of necessity I became a ‘translator’, daily standing on the border between two worlds, getting the language of the Bible that God uses to create and save us, heal and save us…into the language of Today that we use to gossip and tell stories, give directions and do business, sing songs and talk to our children.”

“The Bible is not only written about us but to us. In these pages we become insiders to a conversation in which God uses words to form and bless us, to teach and guide us, to forgive us and save us.

“We aren’t used to this. We are used to reading books that explain things, or tell us what to do, or inspire or entertain us. But this is different. This is a world of revelation: God revealing to people just like us…Revelation means that we are reading something we couldn’t have guessed or figured out on our own. Revelation is what makes the Bible unique.”

So I will be putting aside my New Living Translation Bible which I had for a while now and start reading the Bible in these 2 versions side by side from tomorrow. And my prayer will be: ‘O Lord, give me revelation as I read through Your written words to me.’

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