Sunday, 20 August 2017

Love the Church, love the people, warts and all.

What do you do when an influential church member comes to you demanding that you ostracise another member from the youth group just because he is dating his daughter?

What compounds it is that he has been with you through thick and thin since the first brick was laid and has been rather generous in his tithes, offerings and occasional love gifts? 

Here's another crunch. What do you tell a young couple with a toddler when they tell you that they are leaving the church they have grown up with because the church does not provide the same quality childcare services as another church does? 

How about this one. Where do you draw the line between being sympathetic to the genuine needs of the members and being indulgent of their calculative, fastidious, and sometimes, unreasonable demands? 

How far do you go with what they want, how they want it, when they want it, and for how long they want it? 

I know as church leaders you are called to love your neighbor, warts and all, but how should you mediate the conflicts of interests between the mindless demands of growth and the restless cries in your heart to remain authentic to the faith?

The reality is, some members will wear you down. Some will challenge your belief in humanity. Some will question your leadership when she doesn't get her way. Others will just talk behind your back - rather annoyingly, to put it mildly.

And it gets worse with the office staff and the pastoral team. Some churches are built upon both the shamrock of Christ and the cult of personality. 

The pyramid of leadership reaches up to the pinnacle of one or two charismatically glowing personalities, who are incidentally also the founders of the church. Being the founders, they control almost everything, that is, the church and all. Putting it bluntly, you can say that they own it; brick and mortar, paint and quota. 

Take them away from the churches' equation, and the church is effectively headless, so to speak. Unfortunately, by way of perception, they are quite indispensable.

So, what do you do with a church that is based on the sole authority of one or two leaders at the top who effectively runs the show, calls the shots, brings in the crowd and draws in the funds? 

Surely, disagreeing with them in your subordinate pastoral role or church office staff position would somehow dim or sabotage your career prospect in the church right? Alas, the politics in church is sadly no different from the politics in the world, save that the former starts and ends every meeting with a word of prayer. 

Charles Swindoll once wrote that as the church grows rapidly, it runs the risk of "replacing volunteerism with professionalism." 

He added: "The church was never meant to be a "professional organization". We'll let the world have all of those. The church is not a slick, efficient corporation with a cross stuck on its roof. It is a ministry. We do not look to the government for support or to the state for direction. We don't seek the counsel of Wall Street for financial suggestions. We have one Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. We do not rely on any earthly organization or some rich individuals to sustain the ministry. The church is a spiritual entity, built up and supported by its Founder, Jesus, who promised to build His church.""

It is therefore not easy to run, lead or shoulder the responsibilities of a rapidly growing church whether as a leader dealing with the members' seemingly endless demands and expectations, as a church staff hoping that things would be different in the household of God as compared to the secular world, or as a layperson witnessing the transformation of your church into an efficient, professional and multimillion-dollar organization.

Is it then true that when idealism and pragmatism clash, people in general  gravitate towards the middle road of tactical inauthenticity?

Notwithstanding the above, my post this morning is not to talk about the spiritual complacency or administrative woes of a professional church, god knows I've already said my peace in my previous posts here.

But my post this morning is to sincerely empathize with and support those who are faithful to the call in the ministry, and are earnestly travailing for a breakthrough for growth not so much in numbers, but hearts. 

And taking Jesus' example here would be a good start. Before He left, Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, take care of them. He repeated it three times with this initial probing question: Peter, do you love me? 

Undeniably there are leaders/members in churches who love their Savour. They faithfully offer their time, effort and life to the ministry in silent service and without fanfare. 

But let me just say that loving Him is the easy part. It comes almost naturally for a believer. 

Yet, during His time, I believe Jesus was very much hated by many. He was considered a rabble-rouser, a troublemaker, a rebel for the lost. The government deemed him a political threat, the teachers of the law deemed him as religiously defiant, and the local authority deemed him a stubborn non-conformist. Almost everybody in power, statute and wealth found him a threat. 

How did Jesus then operate in a hostile world he lived in? How did He make a lasting difference despite the hate, the rage and the disappointments? 

Well, He did it all in love. He kept the big picture in His heart - his Father's business. He knew nothing was going to shake the foundation of love, hope and faith upon which He stood on. 

That is why I believe He kept asking Peter to do the same. If Peter loves Him, feed His sheep, take care of them, guide them in the ways of overcoming, and connect with them in a way that is life-changing. 

More relevantly, He first set the example, and then became the transforming influence. 

So, loving Jesus is never about embracing an ideal, feeling warmth and fuzzy inside, and then walking away with an ember glow in our faces. 

It is on the contrary hard work. It is about paying the price, counting the cost. It is about bearing the Cross and sharing the bleeding heart of our Savior. It is essentially a labor of love and sweat. 

Alas, Dietrich Bonheoffer’s words ring so true and deep here: "Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial."

For pastors, under-shepherds and church leaders, the simple call to love is an enduring call to make that connection with the sheep regardless of how trying, challenging or tiring they can be.

Jesus did just that, even as he bore the Cross on the road to grief. It was a sacrifice that not only moved the elements of nature, but it moved the hearts of the most impenitent, even till today. 

Let me end with the words of Henri Nouwen who said:- 

"When we say, "I love Jesus, but I hate the Church," we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the Church seldom asks us for forgiveness."

Indeed, the Church seldom asks for forgiveness. It invites and facilitates the act of repentance. It creates an altar space for kneeling, confessing and renouncing. But they are seldom self-administering. And unless the sins of the core leadership are made public, be it pride, greed, envy or the lust for power, the Church carries on business as usual.

My concern is that her servitude to orthodoxy and to the ideal of piety often blindsides the leadership to her own fragile humanity. What sadly makes it even tougher is that the groupishness she develops over time in the critical mass attained often turns into an echo chamber of approval/support that effectively shields the core leadership from self-examination and correction.   

Be that as it may, Jesus' triple reminders to Peter ultimately prevail - Feed my lambs, take care of my sheep and feed my sheep. Individually and collectively, whether leaders, church staff or layperson, we are reminded always that Christ died for the Church so that we as the Church may live for Him by loving the Church in return, warts and all. 

And the challenge may be especially great, but greater is He in us than he in the world. Cheerz. 

* image from heaven await.wordpress.

The Joy ride of Life.

Everybody deserves to be happy. But happiness is not the absence of sadness. It is the appreciation of it. 

Just as death is certain, sadness is certain too. It will come. And it will also go. 

In a marriage, there are disappointments. What's worse is a divorce. In a job, there is betrayal. What's worse is losing it. In parenting, there is lifelong anxiety. What's worse is a prodigal child. 

And in life, there is eventual death - yours and mine. What's worse is to suffer an incurable illness before going.

Today's paper by Gary Hayden talks about "Laughing through minor - and major - trials of life."

Gary cited an article from The Guardian newspaper that reads:-

"Don't try so hard, lower expectations a little, change your relationship with your thoughts. Take proper holidays, nurture your friendships, try not to worry so much about things beyond your control."

Last evening, I took my 6-yr-old out to the playground to cycle. She was just learning how to cycle, and she was delirious about it. She knew she would fall, hurt herself, but she insisted to be left alone. 

So, I stood by one side and watched her - worrying about how she would cope, physically and emotionally. 

What crumpled that evening a tad was that there were two boys her age on scooters. They were chasing her, playing police and thief, taunting her. 

As such, she had to learn the ropes of balancing and keeping the momentum on the bike while being chased by two boys bent on disrupting it. 

Of course, to be fair, the boys were just playing, and it is expected that they would go overboard at times. 

Unsurprisingly, joy fell. She was cycling away from the two boys as fast as she could and she lost her balance on a few occasions. Once or twice, she even hit the slide and fell even harder. 

But, she didn't cry or complain after the falls. She smiled, at times even laughed about it (exposing in plain sight her toothless mouth). 

She then picked herself up and cycled on - refusing to allow the falls to spoil her evening of learning and fun. 

Just then, I was running weary and low on joy juice over the affairs of work and life in general, and the sight of joy, although not intended by her, taught me a lesson or two about life. 

It taught me that every endeavour is fraught with pitfalls. The cliché is that you can't have the rose without the thorns. Or in this case, happiness without sadness. 

Joy laughed when she fell, then picked herself up and cycled on - keeping the momentum as she learned to balance herself. She kept her focus on the road, ignoring her young chasers. 

Of late, I have been bogged down by anxiety and worries. Expecting too much and enjoying too little. Being distracted at times and not keeping the focus on the road; being bothered by what is trivial and impermanent, and forgetting the simple joy before me. 

Alas, the darnest thing about life as a father is that we teach and mentor our children as they grow up, but we forget that they are also teaching us in return. 

Every new step they take and every new experience they savour under our loving guide is the same new step and experience we can learn from as we grow with them. It is never a one-way-street education. 

We as parents are not so much just imparting lessons to them as they are reminding us to learn with them. 

I believe children are God's way of telling us that we are not just alive, but we are also stronger and more resilient than we think we are. They are put on earth to remind us that as they grow, we grow with them, we learn with them and we overcome with them. 

Life at work, in a marriage and parenthood differs little from life at the playground. Keeping the balance of all things, laughing at your falls, picking yourself up every time, and moving forward regardless of the obstacles are the same attitude I should adopt with life in general. 

Sometimes I need to be reminded of that. I need to be taught a thing or two about smiling at the storm, savouring the simplest and most lasting pleasures of life, and keeping the balance and momentum of what is dearest to the heart. 

And at times, it takes the most unsuspecting little bundle of joy to teach me all that. Thanks Joy. Love daddy. Cheerz.

President's Scholars - the heart of parenthood.

A family rejoices when the child does well. A nation celebrates when their sons and daughters leave for overseas studies as President's Scholars. 

Today's paper is about academic excellence, all-rounder's achievement, that is, President's Scholars (PS). There can only be a handful for that prestigious title. The best of the best gets the crown.

But that's not what I'm going to write here. What however captured my attention are the words of one of the PS, Lee Tat Wei, who paid the highest tribute to his parents (see photo inset). 

Lee is going to Yale University to read liberal arts. In fact, all five of the PS are taking the less conventional paths (instead of going for law and medicine). 

One of them from SOTA (the first), Cheri Wee Jin Ting, is going to read psychology and philosophy at Oxford. The other is doing Science in France. The latter, Jaspeep Singh Hundal, FYI, did Chinese as a third language at RI and scored A1 for it. 

Let's go back to what Lee said. His words resounded in my heart. 

He said that his parents are his greatest role models. "They weren't very educated but they gave me moral support...My father encouraged me to take up sport, to do what I love." 

Lee's father works as a taxi driver and his mother, a part-time sales assistant. 
Here's the dedication that warmed my heart. Lee said:-

"My parents gave me an environment that money couldn't buy. They never pressured me to get straight As. They taught me to live in the moment." 
Lesson? The words of Lee will form the three lessons for me starting with living in the moment.

1) "They taught me to live in the moment". 

Let's admit it, there's nothing we can do about the past as parents. The past is the past. Whatever mistakes, neglect or regrets we have are done and dusted. 

As parents, we too are learning the ropes just as our children are learning theirs. No one goes into parenthood as an old timer or a seasoned hand. 

It's our maiden voyage for our first kid, and our second kid and third, because no two kids are alike. Each of them comes with his/her own challenges, and stretches us towards growth. 

Living in the moment for me is learning from my past and applying them consciously and intentionally to my present. It is also to remind me to never squander my present time with them with the cares or anxieties for their future.

It is our relationship with them that matters above all. And relationship is not built over the years by looking back ruefully or longing for a future anxiously. 

It is built up moment by moment in the present. If we miss that, those precious building blocks of being present for them, we miss the most empowering gift of parenthood, that is, enduring influence. 

2) "They never pressured me to get straight As". 

Again, let's face it, President Scholars are rare. They don't like manna fall from the sky. Only the best of the best gets the best. Not every child will end up a PS. 

But, that's never the point of parenthood. They are born not to live up to the script of society, but the scribbles of the heart. And the heart's scribbles are the everyday love notes we offer to them when they need it most.

They are not prepared or polished speeches made by orators of public offices. On the contrary, the scribbles from the heart from one moment to another are spoken to elevate the spirit, nudge the soul forward, and strengthen the earthly bond. 

Yes, we can't ensure they turn out to be PS. That's not within our control and is never the endgame of being a father or mother.

But what is within our control, on a day-to-day basis, is to nurture the best relationship we know how with them. It is upon these little (hardly noticeable) milestones of affection and attention that we give them space to grow, and the freedom and courage to be what they want to be. 


3) "My parents gave me an environment that money couldn't buy".

Yesterday, Joy, my 6-yrs-old, came to me crying again. She said she doesn't want to go to school. 

I recall the tender, if not wounded, moment. I was out of words that morning. But I knew whatever I said would make a difference to her little heart.

So, just right there, I remembered that we saw the movie Moana the night before. It was our thousandth time watching it. 

In Moana, there was a phrase she repeated often as she sailed across the ocean to look for the whimsical demigod Maui. 

She said: "I am Moana of Motunui. You will board my boat, sail across the sea and restore the heart to Te Fiti."

There and then, I hugged Joy and whispered these words to her:- 

"Darling, you remember that brave Moana (Joy nodded). She sailed the scary ocean alone. She fought the fire monster Te Ka and won. What did she say to Maui? She said, "I am Joy Jann of Pasir Ris. I will put on my uniform and shoes, and cross the playground to school, and rejoice in my heart always because mommy and daddy love me dearly."

I repeated that again, and Joy broke out into laughter. She then hugged me again and wiped her tears, and like Moana, left for school. 

I then realised that I don't need to buy her toys to cheer her up. At such moment, she needs a human touch, a shared heart, and some words of encouragement to nudge her along. 

These are things money cannot buy. They come from the heart, they are felt from the heart, and they heal from the heart. 

I therefore dedicate this piece to all parents. You are amazing in your own special ways. Your dedication and love are never left unfelt by your kids. 

They are like raindrops in their soul, sunlight in their spirit and the air of life in their heart. Fight on and move forward with them. You make the difference in their little lives. Cheerz.