Follow that Star!
Today is Epiphany, and marks the beginning of another liturgical seasons in our Christian calendar.
Epiphany is the celebration of the manifestation of Christ to the world and the Mystery of the Incarnation. I had a lot more written about the history and significance of Epiphany and I woke up this morning, and deleted the whole chunk off. I would have gone into a long bit about the Eastern and Western traditions, and the historical development of Epiphany. If you are interested come talk to me or go to Wikipedia – the information there is quite accurate.
Because epiphany has another meaning. It is an experience of sudden and striking realization - the kind of realization or revelation that helps us see things from a new and deeper perspective. And I had an epiphany - a lot of you are not really ministered to with this information. You do not need information. You need wisdom.
At FCC, we normally have sort of a State of the Church address the first Sunday of the new year. We look back at the year that has passed, and look ahead into the year. This year is special - this year, FCC is ten years old.
I wrote this in my Christmas letter to the church - "i am ending 2012 in an odd note. Many things loom in the horizon - 2013 would not be an easy year." December 2012 wasn't an easy month either. Looking back in the whole year, I wonder, what have I done so far. Some projects that I was supposed to be doing, are left of half done. Not a good scorecard. Our attendance has been stagnating - and has been stagnating for a few years. While we do not want numbers to drive us, we need to think about what is causing us to plateau.
After our Christmas service, many of you came up to me. Some with presents, but many came up to thank me - and I was reminded how you have grown in this past year, how you have changed. How in your different circumstances, you were challenged, and how you responded to those challenges and grew. i saw the youth in FCC blossom and matured. i saw those wrestling with self-doubt take a step forward and see yourselves as beloved children of God, worthy of love, and opening up. i saw wounds heal, relationships mended. i saw people stepping forward to do what needs to be done - for justice, for compassion, for righteousness.
i saw those whom i accompanied through difficult times smiling, and i am thankful. I am thankful because I was reminded of what I am called to do. And I had an epiphany - before we are to embark on some lofty project of social justice, of outreach ministry, we need to get something right first - we need to build an emotionally and spiritually healthy church.
The wise men followed a star and found the Jesus the Christ. What about us? What do we follow to find Jesus? What is our guiding star, our inner compass? Then I had yet another epiphany. We are not trying to find Jesus. We are trying to find God. Jesus is the one who points us and leads us to God. Jesus is the star that we follow.
I have been taught - at least in the few occasions in my younger years in contact with the church - that if I believe in Jesus, everything would be OK. I would be saved. We are to look up to Jesus as Saviour. He who would come rescue us from our situations and our circumstances. We would be saved from whatever that bad that is happening in our lives.
While this belief in a higher power that intervenes may help us cope with life's circumstances, what happens when nothing changes? That Jesus doesn't love us, or that God fails us, or that God doesn't exist? I know of many people who left church, disappointed when nothing happened.
I don't think that's how things work. This, at the end of the day, is us imposing our will on God. It is about what we want, what kind of changes, what kind of miracles we seek. We want instant miracles, instant change - and we fail to allow ourselves - and God - to take time to work out the changes that we seek. Yes, there are moments when we see God working - and it's like the parting of the Red Sea - but there are far, far more moments when the miracles are the slow kind - like the growth of mustard seed into a tree. Really, loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength means submission to God's will. It is about allowing God to work in our lives with us.
Far too often we see Jesus as Saviour, and not Teacher. Too often we look to Jesus more as an Idol than a Model. Jesus invited us to follow him, not just worship him.
Like the wise men following the star, we should be following Jesus as our star. We will get closer to God looking to Jesus as our model. We are told in preaching class to be careful about self-revelation in our sermons and the pulpit shouldn't be our therapy couch. In my discernment and preparation I think it is important to let you in - so you see exactly how I have been sustained through all that I do - and how I try to follow Jesus.
And so it is from following Jesus - on the Way - that begins what we set out to do - building an emotionally and spiritually healthy church.
I have been known - and I still do - to break down some times when I preach. I get emotionally overwhelmed. I used to think it's a problem, but - yes here's another epiphany - I think that is my gift. No, it is not to manipulate you emotionally. No. Rather, it is my way of being authentic.
The world teaches us "don't cry" or "stop crying" or "crying is bad." Sorrow is something we avoid, and we run away from. But it is part and parcel of life. Just like in the Catholic tradition of praying the rosary (Yes, I prayed the rosary when I was in my teens when there are only 3 sets of mysteries) - there is a set of mysteries that are the sorrowful mysteries. There is a place for sorrow - and an emotionally and spiritually healthy person - must find a place for the sorrow. There is, I think, a deficiency in the Protestant tradition – we are quite adverse to sorrow and dealing with sorrow.
I love our worship today – it is not just about rejoicing and celebrating, but also about wrestling with grief and sorrow – like the lamentations – and we are trying to find an authentic way to be with God in church.
Does anyone know what is the shortest verse in the Bible? John 11:35. Jesus wept.
Jesus wept when he saw people mourning for Lazarus. Jesus wept.
Some of you are aware that Darryl, one of the council members of FCC, is undergoing chemotherapy for the cancer in his brain. It is classified as stage 4, so it is serious. I have had many conversations with Darryl, and it is with his permission that I share what I am going to share.
We both refuse to give in to false hope - we will not say that everything is going to be ok, and God will work miracles - at least the kind of miracles that will result in the outcome we want - and the cancer suddenly disappears. Neither will we give in to despair. Like Job, we know "The LORD gives and the LORD takes away, blessed be the Name of the LORD." We want to live in hope and faith between these two extremes - False Hope, and Despair.
The promise of God isn't that everything is going to turn out the way WE want it - but rather God will be with us through everything we are going to face. My faith is leaning on this promise - that God is with me through it all. Yes, like Jesus, I did ask if the cup can be taken from me. Like Jesus, I also know it is for me to submit to God's will and not mine.
I realized that, whether I liked it or not, all of you will look to me and see how to respond to the situation. I guess my first way of dealing with Darryl's condition was subconsciously suppressing my feelings. I dealt with it very matter of fact, and figuring out what I need to do and what I can do for him. Then, one afternoon, when Eu Meng was messaging me on Facebook asking about Darryl's condition, I suddenly sobbed uncontrollably. And it dawned on me - another epiphany - that it is affecting me a lot more than I let on. I was grieving for my friend.
I realized that I am called also to model what Jesus modeled for us - vulnerability. How do I balance between being strong, and being vulnerable? I have friends whose loved ones are going through health issues. They try to be strong for their loved ones, so their loved ones do not worry about them. They pretend to be okay in front of them, and they avoid crying. I don't think that is emotionally healthy.
I learned this precious gift from my grandma. This most precious gift she gave - a loving goodbye. I have told this to many of you before - and it is something I draw strength from. I only had one concern when I left for seminary in the US - and that was grandma. She was 93 and her health was failing. So, every term break I was back in Singapore to spend time with her. Her condition deteriorated, and she was beginning to have mild dementia. But when I sat with her that last day I was in Singapore, there was a moment of lucidity - and she suddenly asked me "When are you leaving?" I told her tomorrow. "When are you coming back?" "The end of the year." "I will not see you again." I said "I will be back." Then she looked at me with all earnestly and said" I will not see you again. You take care of yourself and work hard."
And I broke down and wept and wept as I hugged her. I didn't have to pretend to be strong. I wept, and she knew what I felt. I was authentic. I told my friends before - don't you think your loved ones know how you feel? They are also pretending with you. And that is not emotionally healthy, and that is a barrier to authentic relationship.
Tears come from the depth of our feeling and our connectedness with each other. It is our vulnerability that allows us to connect deeply and authentically. We are real to one another.
So that's one lesson - Jesus wept.
Then as I went through the past month, struggling and trying not to burn out, there was something else I saw as a gift. As something I need to share with you as we journey and grow as an emotionally and spiritually mature church.
I stumbled around for a bit, a bit overwhelmed. Then I went back following that star - went back reflecting on Jesus, and how he did things.
On the darkest night before his most difficult trial, the crucifixion, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus spent time to be alone with God.
In the moments between his ministry, Jesus took time to be alone with God. How do we take time to be alone with God?
In this hyper-connected age, we are actually totally disconnected with everything. We are disconnected with the people around us. Have you seen a group of friends having a meal together, and all of them are texting, or facebooking?
We are also disconnected with God. If we spend a tenth of the time we spend on Facebook in prayer, I think we would grow better spiritually.
So the other epiphany I had was to return to my spiritual disciplines - what I have been taught that helps me survive the emotionally demanding work I have to do. When we embark on the big things - issues of justice, the ministries we are called to serve in our lives, the big picture things - we also need to take care of our inner life. We often refer to Nouwen's model of spirituality - Solitude, Community, Ministry.
I think we do well finding our community - but it is the solitude part that we need to focus more energy in. I know some of you are drained - some of you, like me, is burning out. Pay attention. Don't pretend that everything is ok, don't try to be "strong." Because true strength lies in being vulnerable, because being vulnerable allows us to build strong relationships that sustain us through difficult times.
And one last piece of wisdom I offer you - I do not believe that bad things happen to you as some form of divine punishment. If it is your fault, it is the consequence of your actions. I also do not believe that being faithful, being Christian, will protect you from calamities, or prevent bad things from happening to you. That is not being spiritually healthy.
There is no way we can be free from adversities, or pain, or struggles or difficulties - because these are the realities of life. This is what I learned in my time as a hospital chaplain - while God does not inflict suffering on us, God also doesn't protect us from suffering. But God's promise is this - while God won't take the suffering away, God is with us when we go through that suffering, and God suffers with us when we suffer.
Remember this - there is no shadow that light cannot dispel, and nothing love cannot overcome. It doesn't mean that the pain, the difficulties, the struggles will disappear, but it is through love that we face them. So I do not wish you a year free from adversity, or pain, or struggles, or difficulties. I wish you more courage, more strength, more hope and most important more love. May you always remember that love is stronger than death, and even the dimmest candle can dispel the darkest shadows. May you learn not to run away from fear, but to face it, and may you persevere to find yourself. Let us follow that star, let us follow Jesus, as we learn to build an emotionally and spiritually healthy church.