29 Dec 2017

My 2017 best-thoughts about life, parenting, church...

It's Monsoon season in the tropics, with plenty of rainfall. This means a pretty low season for getting out to the beach. So we headed did that for two reasons. One, it's always more restful to avoid the crowds, and secondly, the son had written in his list of post-exam delights, a visit to a beach. I know Singapore is an island, but our beaches aren't very pleasant. The sand is coarse, it's really humid, and when you look at the horizon, all you see are cargo ships which isn't a pretty sight. So, we drove the nearly two hours towards the East Coast of Malaysia to Desaru and checked ourselves into a space that was (I found out later) recently renovated. God mercifully gave us a good bit of sunshine and held the rain back so we could be at the beach. The kids read on swings hung from large tree branches or on the deck chairs.

But after a while, we simply could not resist the call of the wind and the waves. We aren't exactly sun and surf beings, but the waves' insistent pounding on the beach with its roar, beckoned us to venture towards the bit of South China Sea right at our feet.

First, we gingerly walked around the edges where the water reached the shore. Then we jumped into the waves. Then we sat on the beach and waited for the waves to come and crash us over! A slow submission to the forces of created order.

O my, what fun!

Will it be a large, strong wave that will knock us over?
How far out should we try to walk out?
Is it a good idea to perch on this rock and wait to be awashed with sea water?

There is something thrilling about being in nature and having a sport with it. Some of the most luminous pictures and writing have come to us from men and women who did not see nature as resource or entertainment, but as a world to enter in, investigate, relish and respond to.

There was something primal, basic, and simple to our joy at wave-play.

Now as I am contemplating my year soon ending, the year ahead and what to write, the memory of the waves returns to me and I smile.

This image though is of a gentler wave.

The kind that grows with the wind and momentum and then slows as it approaches shore, landing as a gentle crest on the sand. This kind of wave will not catch or knock anyone over who had their backs turned. It will not threaten to drag anyone who was playing idly by the shore out to sea. It comes in and softly caresses the shore, leaving it smoother and cleaner.

This is what I hope to do in this post. Be a gentle wave.

There is so much on my heart and in my head as the year draws to a close. Most years past, I have written about the Hope of  New in a New Year. But somehow, this year, that's not forthcoming.  Instead, I want to offer some of my thoughts this year about several subjects that always occupy me, and perhaps they occupy you too.

So this blog is about the wind and forces of God this year - in my thoughts. As a person with an active mind, I always have some new and unfinished thinking going on. I confess that they aren't always what I call 'high, holy or happy' - the ditty I used to help my son apply Philippians 4v8:

"... brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things"

We like to think that our thoughts are private, shy or secretive affairs. But they aren't. Although no one can read our minds or really tell our thoughts, they become public eventually because thoughts are the words and actions that are waiting to emerge. Indeed, the world is constantly shaped by thoughts that are being communicated, often without the actual articulation of the thought.

A relationship isn't going anywhere because the thoughts about it aren't.
That problematic situation doesn't improve because the thoughts about it are unchanged.
A dream doesn't transpire because the thoughts have not moved from ideal to action.

We are able to think ourselves into traps, corners and caves. I have enough thought experience by now that I can rather quickly tell of I am following a thought down a trail that is dark and disabling. Some lead to familiar trails that seem comfortable but are really discouraging and lead to a miry bog. When these happen, it usually ends up that I speak and act and serve muddy pies rather that life-giving delights.

Humans are presumably the only creatures in Kingdom Animaliae that can examine our thoughts.

So I want to learn to think my thoughts in God's grand presence. This means taking my thoughts to the Light and letting what is really happening be revealed. At times I have to question a thought that comes and then decide if I will bother with it. At other times, the synapses fire away so quickly, I have to check it against His Word and allow his forces of truth and grace to chisel away so that the edifices they become are more noble than otherwise.

So here are some of my hopefully, Light-infused thoughts on several subjects close to my heart.

I am writing this for myself. As you read it, I hope it works like a gentle wave that comes upon you and leaves your heart and mind feeling better. You are welcome to share it, highlighting the bits you found useful or meaningful.

A] 'Perfect' Parenting

A young adult who teaches Secondary School was talking with me about parenting. She concedes that it is really hard in a society like Singapore where we have been raised on a narrative of "win or lose it all". For the longest time, the older generation of politicians have been telling us how vulnerable we are, the need to plug into the world and be open to the gales of change, how we need to keep paddling to stay afloat. Socially, this has spurned the famous kiasu culture, where there is a fear of losing out. In a largely consumer world, this tallies nicely with another set of value: "get the most for whatever you pay". Successful bargains and great deals are a point of pride.... "Only forty dollars!"

No wonder parenting is so tough.

We need to capture and maximise our child's potential. We must not lose out, but have to grab all those opportunities. We have to get to that mega sale. Did that article say 'prebiotic'?

All of it requires energy, time, and money. The last one itself, money, requires substantial time and energy to generate! It will be great if we can decide that one enrichment class, a birthday party and a new outfit during Chinese New Year were enough. But we don't know where the finishing line is. New products and classes are always been advertised.

Yet deep in our souls, we still feel like we owe our children something. We simply cannot ensure their happiness or their success. Many women also struggle with mom-guilt at being away from home due to work.

We are driven by fear.

The funny thing is, children are happy when life has a structure and the parents are happy. It's really quite simple. But we have buried this simple thing under layers and layers of needs, demands, expectations and discontent. Our fears and worries do not a happy home or child make!

Things tend to atrophy when not actively tended to (fires die down, interest wanes, muscles weaken), then someone must take charge to build up the children and that includes building a home that has structure and peace.

That aside, 'perfect' parenting can happen if we stick to one other simple rule: respond to the child you have, not the one you wished you have. We are called to raise our children, not our dreams.

At some point, our kids will challenge our proud parent moments and make them feel like so much empty froth. They don't like to read, struggle to sit still, soil their pants at five, are awkward and shy, aren't athletic, have a fear of the water, gag on their vegetables. This is before they are a bundle of angst, question your authority and integrity, sulk and talk back!

I think the perfect parent is the one who will take a step back and look realistically at the situation, find strength in God, say "this too is a gift", and courageously head on to deal with it patiently and sacrificially.

Being child-centric is not creating a world that revolves around the child's whims and tantrums. It is a commitment to get to know your child and build a world that supports his humanity and his growth as a person first, then some possible talent or occupation. Being child-centric actually requires us to be family-centric too, for a child by design, is born into a system and thrives when the system is functional and healthy.

B] 'Perfect' church

Phil and I are very privileged to be friends with, and work with so many churches in Singapore and a few in the region. It gives us insights and a bird's eye view of things.

The church in Singapore has seen growth in the last few decades but now confront some serious challenges. We are seeing a generational divide as the millennials grow up in a vastly different world than us. Some are disenfranchised with the church. New churches have sprung up. We have serious cultural and theological conundrums, from gender issues to family discipleship.

They used to say that if you do the same things, you get the same results. I suspect that if we do the same things, we may not get any results.

It is time to consider our ways, examine our philosophy and broaden our understanding.

The church is in need of renewal.

We need to find a way for people to encounter God, to dig the Word, to be embedded in community, to be exercised in meaningful engagement with society. We need to create a way for leadership development and succession and mission expressions that are more organic. We need champions for each of this. Yet, we need a way that won't see us running all over the place, with loyalties and commitment stretched too thin to really matter.

We need brave men and women and institutions who will confront the tough stuff, and thankfully we do have them!

Online realities have emboldened many to share emotional wounds, and we  need a way for those who are seeking and are hurt to find healing. It's hard to start over in a new community, yet this is exactly what is needed. We need to help our people be more resilient and accepting of the tough stuff of community, including embracing those who need a great deal of care and patience before they turn a corner and mature.

We are being challenged to stop turning to programs, and to start being the people of God.

Seeking our definition as as people will be an ongoing journey. Our identity is lived out in context. We are loving, pure, gracious, Christlike as we respond to our situations. Our calling and impact too is worked out in context. Hence the tendency we have to hark back to a time where the church was pristine is a rather immature approach. We can and must certainly examine Scripture to see the qualities that the first disciples had. Their radical faith, courage, commitment and witness must be our compass. We need to ask how these qualities of the faith-life are to be nurtured and lived out today in our settings.

The people of God is a fascinating mix of maturity, talents, convictions and expressions. Our unity and one-ness is found in the deeper regions of the mystery of our faith: that Christ has saved us and lives in us. It is this one Christ that is our unity. Today, there is much to divide the people of God. The LGBTQ issue, Israel, Trump, and I hear of old wars regarding hymns and choruses being revisited! Let's face it, centrifugal forces are always at work. The faster we spin, the easier we fly outwards, away from centre and each other.

We need to stop being slaves to efficiency, quick answers and fast solutions.

If a plant has a sore, is a little shaky or has suffered, we do not drown it with more water, overwhelm it with fertilizer or simply re-pot it. It is needing some tender, loving care. That is exactly what the head of the church wants to do. He needs many husbandman who are willing to be his eyes, mouth, hands and feet.

C] 'Perfect' Peace

Soul, are you well?

This question can feel like an invitation, an interrogation or a threat. It all depends on how you hear it.

The person who must measure up feels a threat, suggesting he does not.
The person who has been dodgy feels like he is being searched.
The person who knows that he is welcome and his soul is a treasure hears tenderness.

The shape and texture of our Christianity matters.

Some are habitually thankful, some are constantly worrying, some are like yo-yo's. But of course we only see what's apparent. I am mostly thankful, but I do worry, and emotionally I have my yo-yo moments for sure.

During a personal retreat, I decided to do a little artwork. The first thing that I wanted on the paper was a thick red line. Not usually one given to invoke the blood of Christ, I found myself somehow relating that line to the blood that was shed for my salvation. Along and around the line, I drew trails and paths I had taken. Some seem pretty straightforward, some meandered and plunged and one or two thinned out because I had no idea where they led. It seemed the thick red line flowed right through it all and in a way called it all back and held it all.

This is peace - that He holds the pieces.

Since I keep forgetting this truth, I need to remind my soul often of it. But it's not a mind-over-matter exercise, because in the end, our minds really do matter because they have several tendencies that can undermine us. We like to think the same thoughts, it's comforting for us. So worries begat worries. We seek out information that confirms what we think, again it's comforting for us. So doubts and suspicion are easily reinforced.

So simply to tell ourselves to quit worrying is like trying to speak gently into a swell. There's an entire chorus going on in our heads that will drown out our good intentions and earnest declarations.

In my upcoming book, I will share how silence is the key to disrupt our minds and lay out new tracks for our thought-trains. But because we awake with thoughts and basically never really stop thinking, the Bible has called us to be intentional about what we think on. With that, I end this piece on my thoughts, about thoughts:

In conclusion, my friends, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable. (Good News Bible)

Consider the fruit of this over time, for your family life, your church, and the state of your soul. May we be more perfect* in 2018!

*perfection is a Wesleyan theological idea, of being made more like Christ. 

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