Praying--For-whose-ears

Praying: For whose ears?

Photo by Terry Bidgood

Palms sweaty, heart racing, mind on overdrive.

No, it’s not nervousness over an impending exam or presentation, but, well . . . praying with others.

Even though I grew up in a “culturally Christian” family, I had never really prayed with others before. The closest I had come to it was muttering a quick prayer before the occasional celebratory family meal to give thanks for the food.

But for the most part, I saw prayer as a one-on-one, personal conversation between me and my Father—my whispered words for His ears alone. So, after I truly accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior and joined a small family church where praying with those around us was a common practice, I was both intrigued and terrified.

I had never heard people talking to God out loud before, and doing so felt like I was spying on a secret conversation. While I was comfortable observing them, I would clam up whenever it was my turn.

I remember one occasion in particular: I was painfully stuttering through a prayer with two older people I’d just been acquainted with, my eyes scrunched up in concentration and cheeks warm. I felt stupid for not knowing how to pray, and mortified at how stilted my prayer was compared to theirs; my words sounded thick and clunky coming out of my mouth.

Over time, as I listened to the prayers of others, I couldn’t help but notice how they prayed. Some stammered, generously sprinkling filler words like “um” and “like” throughout their prayers; others were capable of reciting concise summaries of sermons we’d just heard in a perfectly packaged prayer. Some prayed like a bullet train, spurting out clipped words in a single breath, while others meandered wherever their thoughts took them. Some prayed with boredom tinging their voices, others prayed with emotion quivering at the back of their throats.

I marveled at my best friend’s eloquent prayers, richly adorned with descriptive language and generously furnished with Bible verses. I envied her easy confidence and poignant words, which felt like a much more pleasing prayer to the Lord’s ears than my own—or so I imagined.

As I listened to them, I began to pick up expressions and phrases to incorporate in my own articulated prayers, as if collecting shiny baubles to deck my petitions to God with. Without knowing it, I became overly conscious of what I sounded like in the ears of others—and even critical and condescending as I began to judge other people’s prayers against my own.

One Sunday, I had the opportunity to pray with a sister a couple of years younger than me. She was a small, unassuming, and quiet girl whom I hardly knew. Even though she came from a Mandarin-speaking background and wasn’t fluent in English, her prayer was beautiful. She prayed to the Lord earnestly and simply, with short sentences, in a tone of complete reverence and humility. And even though she spoke with few words, I could hear and feel her love for God.

Right then, I felt ashamed of my own prayer, which, though gracefully delivered, didn’t come from an intimate or authentic place. Instead, it was motivated by a subconscious desire to be found praying the “right” way, and to sound and appear holy and perfect, as I assumed Christians ought to be. As I learnt to participate in corporate prayer, I had unknowingly mistaken my primary audience to be my fellow brothers and sisters. I had forgotten that while praying with others can be one way to edify and encourage them, it shouldn’t be the main motivation behind praying with others. This sweet, young sister-in-Christ made me realize that no oratory prowess can compare to a humble prayer uttered from a genuine and contrite spirit.

Jesus made it clear that He isn’t impressed by eloquent prayers that exalt Him on the surface but indirectly exalt the person praying (Matthew 6:5-13; 23:5-12). Rather, He is pleased with and accepts the prayers of those who call upon His name in repentance (Luke 18:10-14).

Today, I have learned to pray slowly and thoughtfully, and to murmur simple, heartfelt words directed solely for the ears of my Father in Heaven while in the presence of others. After all, our prayers are ultimately for God’s ears, who alone hears and answers according to His perfect will and in His perfect time.

So-You-Think-You-Have-the-Best-Bucket-List(1)

So You Think You Have the Best Bucket List?

Written By Karen Kwek

A lifelong scribbler, Karen enjoys the company of friends, a great cup of tea and seeing the gospel transform hearts and lives. She worked as a book editor until she and her husband traded peace and quiet for parenthood. It seemed a good idea at the time.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Recently my sons’ school principal addressed his students with this line from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”, recognizing that with their best years lying ahead of them, life is full of wonder and possibility.

And not just for the young. In the 2007 film that coined the “bucket list” phrase, Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson played two terminally ill men setting out to fulfil a list of things they each want to see or do before dying.

Since then, helped by social media, the bucket list has become an enduring thing. The sharing of all kinds of personal experiences, from travel and adventure to the artistic and culinary, not to mention photographs enhanced by every filter known to Instagram, makes for no lack of bucket list ideas and recommendations.

Today there are even specialized bucket lists, so that each of your must-do categories can have its own Top 10—10 Places To See; 10 Bestsellers To Read; 10 Extreme Sports To Try . . . In fact, why stop at 10? Sample the best that this world offers, and you can then die happy!

As Christians, should our bucket lists look the same as everyone else’s? At first, we might ask why not. After all, this world in its present form is passing away, and compared to eternity, our earthly lifetimes will be gone in a flash. Since Jesus has saved us for eternal life with God, what harm can it do to enjoy everything that He’s given us in the here and now? Surely these awesome experiences are all reminders of a powerful and loving God.

On my own list have long been a few special places—the lands where Jesus lived, as well as Dorset’s Jurassic Coast and Petra the Nabatean city in rock. I’d also like to watch an illusionist perform live, navigate a river in a houseboat, and hunt for truffles in Italy with friends and a trained dog!

But as I look again at these things, I realize that although enjoying creation and our God-given life is a valid expression of our relationship with God, the world’s obsession with the bucket list is based on some assumptions that may not hold up on closer examination:

 

1. Those who are not working through a bucket list are missing out.

Now, I know it’s very likely that Galilee, Dorset, Petra and Italy will not last forever. Certainly the apostle Peter writes of the destruction by fire of the earth and heavens and everything in them (2 Peter 3:10-12) when Jesus returns. We are told, however, that “we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). The earth will not stay destroyed.

Although the Bible doesn’t go into many details about what the renewed world will be like, we have every reason to believe that it, too, will be a physical, embodied world with, well, impressive topography! Dare I hope that some of earth’s amazing places will be recreated, only even better?

If this is so, no one who is saved by Christ will be missing out on any of these life’s experiences at all. Even if the new earth is nothing like the old, there will surely be even better things to do or see there! To borrow an idea from the world of software development, who goes back to the beta-version once the live release is out?

 

2. Bucket list experiences can be enjoyed only during this lifetime.

The assumption here is that life is fleeting and best spent living to the fullest before we’re six feet under and it’s all too late. Indeed, life is short, but just as the world will not stay destroyed when Jesus returns, Christians will not stay dead! The apostle Paul describes our immortal resurrection bodies as spiritual, that is, not immaterial but instead animated by the Holy Spirit, perfectly suited to the new heaven and new earth that will last forever.

This means that any mountaintop on the new earth could still be fair game for those of us who would like to climb it with imperishable legs! My husband and children also like to imagine the kind of beyond-Michelin-stars foods there might be at the great wedding dinner mentioned in Revelation 19:9!

 

3. Bucket list experiences make us into better people.

As the torchbearers of a carpe diem spirit, bucket list champions usually come across as people who are keen to try new things, challenge stereotypes, confront their fears or step outside their comfort zones. We’d probably like to think that they’re people who know what they want and can muster the determination to pursue it. We’re tempted to buy into the assumption that these not-to-be-missed experiences will be somehow life-changing and character-transforming, helping us become the kind of people we long to be.

But as Christians, it’s worth asking: What kind of people should we long to be, and how do we suppose this change happens? By grace, through faith, Jesus has already enacted a crucial change in our status before God. We who were once dead in our sin are now alive in Christ, through no merit or effort of our own (Ephesians 2:8). Consequently, the apostles urge us to live “a life worthy of the calling [we] have received” (4:1), making every effort to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with God (2 Peter 3:11, 14). Peter reminds us that we already have in the gospel everything we need to live a godly life, because we know Jesus!

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-8)

Although bucket list experiences may provide us with some unique insights, it turns out that growing into the kind of people God is pleased to use won’t necessarily involve swimming with orcas or hiking to the Iguazú Falls. I’m not saying that God never chooses to test our mettle Jonah-style, but most of us will find that training in the virtues of godly living and Christian character comes from practicing God’s Word in our day-to-day relationships with our parents, siblings, spouses, children, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. It is in these contexts that qualities such as goodness, self-control, brotherly affection and love are really tested and strengthened.

 

So, is there a better bucket list?

But before you yell, “Killjoy!” and stop reading, does this mean we should delete our bucket lists and never do or see anything out of the ordinary? I don’t think so, and I am not about to prescribe a one-size-fits-all “Christian bucket list” for you.

Instead, I have been asking myself how my relationship with God redefines my bucket list and my ultimate goals in this life. What does it mean, in practical terms, to learn to “number our days” (Psalm 90:12), wisely “making the most of every opportunity” (Ephesians 5:16)? The New King James Version translates this as “redeeming the time”, and the apostle Paul goes on in later verses and Ephesians 6 to explain that this concerns understanding what God’s will is and acting rightly in relationships.

Besides His will that we work at personal godliness, God’s will for humanity is also revealed in His  holding back the end of time for us. As Christians we are reminded to live with the day of Jesus’ return in mind. This is the single event towards which all of human history is hurtling! And lest we forget just why God is not bringing it on sooner, Peter writes that God has a very different perspective of time compared to ours: He is not slow to keep His promise to return; rather, He is patient, wanting people to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Human historical time is not random; it is purposed for the unfolding of His salvation plan! God is not simply killing time but filling it with redemptive purpose, calling His people to Him, one sinner at a time. And so, in these times where sin is present, there is redemptive work to be done in the sense that people urgently need to know Jesus.

It seems to me, then, that since God’s will in human historical time is to see as many turn to Him as possible, I can re-evaluate my bucket list in at least these two ways:

 

Time

Is my view of time aligned with God’s? How long would it take for me to achieve every single item on my bucket list, and could that time be more wisely spent on relationships that bring others to Jesus or encourage them in their Christian journey? Writer David Andrew puts it this way in Christian publication The Briefing #273: “Christians should be arguing for seeing life as a set of relationships to be brought under the authority of the gospel of Jesus Christ—the prime relationship. Sadly, however, many Christians act no differently to anyone else in their management of time—they maximize the economic rather than the relational.”

 

Other limited resources, such as energy and money

How much of my energy and income would be spent achieving every single item on my bucket list? Realistically, some of the trips and activities that people seek are terribly expensive. Am I willing to invest some (if not most) of that energy and money (or even suffer a loss in income) for the sake of relationships that bring others to Jesus or encourage them in their Christian journey? These considerations have a direct bearing on the kind of job I might choose, how I spend my leisure time, or even whether I see my time raising my children as an opportunity to make disciples for Jesus. Would I be willing to maximize the relational rather than the economic?

After all this reflecting, I’ve pared down my list, and I won’t be upset if I never get to do everything on it in this life. Those things can wait. I’ve also come to realize that on a few occasions when I tried to seek God’s Kingdom first, He graciously gave me experiences which might even be on other people’s bucket lists! (It’s true—one modest example is how my husband’s Bible college studies took us to another country for several years, somewhere we’d otherwise never have experienced as residents. Ask me more another time!) I don’t say this to boast, merely to challenge myself. I’m certainly not there yet, but wouldn’t it be amazing if redeeming the time meant improving my bucket list so drastically that my life’s passions could be Jesus’? Then, if Jesus were to return tomorrow, I wouldn’t have to change a thing about my “one wild and precious life”!

What’s on your bucket list? How could you make it better?

My-Identity-Crisis--All-I-Wanted-Was-to-Fit-In

My Identity Crisis: All I Wanted Was to Fit In

I spent a large part of my adolescence searching for my identity as if it were a lost item to be found.

I suppose it was because a large part of my childhood and early teenage years was spent moving between various states in Malaysia before settling in Auckland, New Zealand. My dad’s former job required him to move whenever a new position arose, and we would move with him.

By the time I was 15, I had been to three different kindergartens, three primary schools, and two high schools. To be fair, some of my friends zipped through even more schools, so I can’t really complain. But the constant state of motion meant that I was always searching for a new identity just so I could fit into my new environment. I didn’t want to be seen as an outsider, so I found myself always trying to meet the status quo.

For example, when a friend told me that someone had labeled me as an outdated individual due to my taste in music, I made up my mind to learn all there was to each new pop group. I would pester my dad to buy me the latest albums and music magazines, and would collect posters of each band.

Trying to fit in also extended to the extracurricular activities I took part in. When I was in primary school in Malaysia, I signed up for Taekwondo as it was the coolest club, and worked my way to a brown belt. But when I moved to junior high school, Taekwondo lost its appeal and was replaced by Scouts.

The first few months of Scouting went relatively well, despite having to put up with the heat in Malaysia and the relentless mosquitoes that swarmed around us in the humid evenings when we were camping. For me, it was a chance to do something cool, with hopes that I’d be accepted into the “in” crowd. I mean, all the camping, tramping, and hiking would surely result in good camaraderie between teammates right?

But an incident that happened during one camping trip cemented the fact that I was never going to be part of the popular crowd. I was putting away my teammates’ mess tins, which we had all washed and dried, onto a makeshift tripod—which was made out of bamboo sticks and held together by the different knots a Scout is supposed to learn and know—when it tipped over. Immediately, a chorus of groans went up, with voices demanding to know how I could have been so careless. It was all arms and elbows as everyone pitched in to rinse the dishes again and steady the tripod.

As the evening wore on, another girl managed to upend the tripod after supper. She was pretty, older than most of us, and hung out with the right crowd. Instead of angry voices demanding to know why she was so careless, there was only laughter. All she got was a joking remonstration, “Oh, you’re so careless!” I went home sad and miserable, gave up Scouting, and shied away from all outdoor activities thereafter.

My early secondary school life in Malaysia was a drag—my academic results were less than stellar, and at one point, I was failing just about every subject there was under the sun. But society saw Science stream students as the smarter bunch, so I had to continue studying subjects I was weak in because I didn’t want to be seen as anything less.

When my parents announced we were moving to New Zealand, I breathed a sigh of relief. Don’t get me wrong: I was reluctant to leave my friends behind. But I realized starting school in a new country would give me a fresh start—and a level of anonymity.

To the rest of my Kiwi classmates, I was just one of the many Asian students at high school. Granted, there were the usual stereotypes of Asians excelling in math and science, but I was also given the opportunity to study the subjects I was interested in. I also felt that it hardly mattered if my clothes were of the correct label or not, because most international students bought clothes from their home country anyway.

Furthermore, my teachers were far more interested in nurturing my strengths—such as English and writing—so the pressure to excel in certain subjects fell away. As a result, I enjoyed school tremendously, and went on to do the same subjects I loved at university.

But if you think that solved my identity crisis, you’re wrong. I disliked the fact that I was poor in math and that accounting wasn’t really my cup of tea. And I wondered why God would have me excel in English and not biology. On top of that, my parents’ friends would question my decision to pursue an English major in university. “But why?” was the most common question. “You can speak English, can’t you?”

So, by the time I was ready to graduate from university, I was still floating in the big world with no identity to anchor myself on.

It wasn’t until I attended a workshop at my church, that I learned about where my real identity comes from—and it certainly isn’t about being like other people.

At the workshop, we were given a list of affirmations of who we are in Christ, followed with Scriptures to back them up. The list had items such as, “I am a child of God” (John 1:12), “I am a friend of Jesus” (John 15:15)—and one that hit me like a ton of bricks: “I have been accepted by Christ” (Romans 15:7). You see, for years I had tried to gain the acceptance of others, but here was a verse that told me that Jesus accepted me—even when I was the uncool individual who listened to bad music before I joined Taekwondo and Scouts. That verse told me God saw me for who I was (with all my flaws) and yet still said: I accept her for who she is.

I also learned how I’m God’s workmanship, created in Christ to do good works (Ephesians 2:10), and that I am greatly loved by God (Romans 1:7, Ephesians 2:4, Colossians 3:12, 1 Thessalonians 1:4).

Intrigued, I read Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, which said: “God never does anything accidentally, and He never makes mistakes. He has a reason for everything He creates. Every plant and every animal was planned by God, and every person was designed with a purpose in mind.”

You see, not only did I have to contend with an identity crisis, but there were also times when I wondered if God had made a mistake when He made me. After all, I was hardly Miss Influential and some of my schoolmates treated me like as if I were an insect. As my insecurities melted away, however, I started to see how silly I had been in looking to my peers for an affirmation of my identity. I realized that God is not bothered with the bands that I follow, the clothes that I wear, or what outdoor interests I pursue. Discovering (and making peace) with my identity also gave me a sense of purpose, which I believe is an important factor when it comes to fighting off insecurities, comparisons, and jealousies.

When I realized that one of my life’s purposes was to write for God, I started to view it as something sacred because it’s a gift from God, instead of a thing to be wished away. Don’t get me wrong, I have always enjoyed writing, but when I was growing up, adults around me made me feel it wasn’t a valuable skill set. What is the use of being able to write if your math and science is falling behind? Have you ever heard of a poor accountant? Those comments certainly had a way of making me feel inferior. However, when I learned to accept who I was, I stopped trying to be someone else, and begin to develop my skills and talents instead.

My newfound identity in Christ has given me the freedom to pursue my hobbies like writing and swimming wholeheartedly. It has also made me braver in pursuing new adventures. For example, never in a million years would I have dreamed of training to be a surf lifeguard, but I’ll be spending a huge amount of time this year training in the pool and open water to qualify as one.

You may be struggling with finding your own identity, and at times, it can seem like you’re drowning in an ocean of voices telling you to be this or that. But let me encourage you: Take the time to read about what God says about you, and you’ll find out that your identity can be found in Him. Because in God, we have an identity so strong and solid that it will never be eroded by popular culture or the latest trend.

When-My-Hard-Work-Amounted-to-Nothing

When My Hard Work Amounted to Nothing

I know people who are avid fans of Japanese author Haruki Murakami—his most notable books include Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. But while I don’t understand the extent of their fanaticism, I do see why Murakami’s works are so well-received: he captures the essence of a person’s meaningless drift through life brilliantly.

After all, most of us go through times where we find ourselves thinking of life as a meaningless journey. This could happen when we’re doing or learning something that seems impossible to master, doing work that doesn’t seem to impact anyone, or trying to keep up with difficult friendships and relationships.

If you’ve ever been on an internship, you might identify with the story I’m about to share. Unlike my friends who went through school scouting for internships every summer, I—being the passive person I was—did not. So when a good opportunity in an advertising agency came up when I was in my third year, I decided to take a semester off school and dived into my first working experience.

I remember loving the first month of it. I loved the creative and flexible nature of the work, and the influence, beauty, and wit that a great advertising campaign could have. I loved the fast-paced environment and culture—the fact that people could be themselves unashamedly. I loved my fellow intern, who became a good friend in a matter of days, thanks to hours of talking and working together. I even loved my supervisor, which is probably not a very common thing.

But then there was pitch season, when companies choose the advertising agency they want to work with. It was then that a big part of me died. Advertising pitches in my country work like this: you come up with an entire advertising campaign for a company’s consideration. If they like it, they hire you to do their advertising and give you the money you need to survive another year. If they don’t, you’re forced to ignore the weeks of hard work and sleepless nights you’ve had to endure, and then pretend you’re okay with about 400 hours of good, creative work being dragged into the tiny trash icon on your computer (which most people, obviously, aren’t okay with).

We came into the office daily, only to see our ideas on post-it pads dumped into a bin, our writing deleted, our art trashed, and our hours wasted at the end of each day. I remember a time when my friend and I would come up with (what we thought were) good ideas for the campaign, only to find them all placed on the “unrealistic” and “ineffective” quadrant of an evaluation chart—or in other words, the “bin”.

I felt like a hamster running on an endless wheel (except that hamsters do at least get fit from the workout), and found myself exhausted, disillusioned, and thinking increasingly about the meaning of life. I began to wonder: How many people working in this office and elsewhere found joy, purpose, and satisfaction in whatever it was they were doing? Did they, like me, think that work was futile and everything boiled down to nothing in the end? While I knew that some had found inspiration, happiness, and excitement in this job, my fellow intern and I found happiness only in our hour-long lunch break (and of course, weekends).

While I was thinking about life, God spoke to me through 2 Peter 3:11-12 at a Bible study group that I was attending. The verse said, “ Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.”

It struck me then that it wasn’t about what I was doing at my job, but about what kind of a life I was living. Was it holy and godly? Was I looking forward to Jesus’ return? Or was I looking for earthly things, such as a fulfilling job to satisfy the craving I had for purpose in life?

Living a holy and godly life while waiting for Jesus’ return doesn’t entail going to church 24/7, or living on a mountaintop in quiet contemplation. It could mean very practical things like pointing a hurting friend to Jesus, refusing to engage in unethical behaviour, or being patient with a younger sibling. For me, I’ve been encouraged by this verse to teach children who come from dysfunctional homes and whose parents don’t have enough to give them a good education. This has taught me to wait for my reward in heaven (because there isn’t any tangible reward now), and to seize the opportunity to do God’s work of pointing others to Him while I still can.

Life is not meaningless if it’s lived in the way that our Creator meant for it to be lived. I now keep this verse on a post-it above my desk as a reminder to myself that all these earthly achievements and pursuits will be destroyed, and to live for something that will last—God’s heavenly kingdom.