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The Warmth of Christmas

Title: The Warmth of Christmas
Photography by: James Kuan (@ohsnapjames)
Description: Spending the Christmas season abroad this year was a different experience, especially without my family. As I walked about and met up with friends, what I captured was that in the dark winter season, people kept warm by coming together to have mulled wine at Christmas markets, or gathering together over a hot fire pit for a bite. But for me, it made me realize that the greatest warmth is knowing that Christ’s love and the gospel unites all believers. No matter where I was, no matter the differences in culture, it is wonderful to be able to celebrate together as a body of Christ!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does My Denomination Matter To God?

Written By Agnes Lee, Singapore

“What? You are attending a Bible study in a Methodist church?” My husband expressed his surprise when I first told him that I was joining this particular Bible study. It was 10 minutes’ walk from my office, and would be held just after work hours, which worked out perfectly for me.

I am currently involved in four different churches and Christian organizations, all from different denominational backgrounds. It is no surprise that my husband might worry about me becoming theologically confused. But I am increasingly learning that God’s love is not limited to any one denomination.

My home church is a Pentecostal church under the Assemblies of God denomination. I started attending the church because of the help and support leaders and church members offered me during a period of trials I faced early in our marriage. These were the people who helped me see God in my darkest moments. This was where my theological foundations were laid, through Bible studies led by my mentor and other leaders of the church.

We are a charismatic church. It is common to hear people speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:3-5) and raising up holy hands in adoration during worship. We unabashedly sing modern worship songs. I enjoy being involved in such lively worship.

My husband’s family, however, prefers that I attend church with them. So for now, I spend more Sundays at their Anglican church than I do at my home church.

Initially this was a difficult transition. The traditional hymns and music at the Anglican church, as well as how quiet and conservative worshippers were, stuck me as rigid. I missed the livelier worship at my home church, and I quietly criticized the leaders and worshippers for their style of worship. It felt like they were just following the weekly routine of worship, and were not at all led by the Spirit.

Despite my initial misgiving, every time I attended the church, the sermons ministered to me—just like the sermons I heard back at my home church. I began to realize that despite our difference in worship styles or our approach towards spiritual gifts, we both believe in the infallible Word of God. Pastors in both churches preach sound teaching. Both churches stand firm on the Bible. And God uses both churches to speak into my heart and convict me of my sins.

Instead of judging the leaders and worshippers at the new church for not being charismatic, I realized that I should repent of being a judge myself. After all, who am I to judge someone else’s servant (Romans 14:4)? The members of my husband’s church are true believers of God. They cling to the same blessed hope and assurance that I have in Christ. The Holy Spirit who inspires the preachers and leaders of both churches is the same Spirit that works in my life.

As for that Bible study that led to my husband’s surprised reaction—it meets in a Methodist church, but is a non-denominational gathering. My group leader comes from a Presbyterian background, while friends in my small group come from different churches as well. Though we all come from different backgrounds, we are brought together by the love of Christ, as well as our longing to see more of God in our lives. I have definitely benefited from the group discussions and lectures here. Alongside these sisters in Christ, I am learning more about God’s Word and being corrected in some of my erroneous ways.

Through this Bible study, I came to know that the Methodist church conducts a midweek lunch-time service for office workers nearby. I started attending the lunch time service, which are short but traditional. I am learning that whatever denomination or style individual Christians prefer, as long as sound doctrine is preached, we can benefit.

Of course, there are certain topics that are handled differently by each church or Bible studies—such as tongues and prophecies, or whether or not infants could be baptized. But as I spent more time in each of these settings, I increasingly realized that while these issues can be important, often they are not worth getting into a debate over. After all, we all worship the same God. And despite minor differences in church tradition and teachings, we preach the same gospel and share the common goal of glorifying God.

Therefore, it would be wrong for me to judge other denominations for their worship style or minor doctrinal differences. Judging other Christians and churches causes division and is not pleasing to God. Who am I to judge faithful and God-fearing servants whom God is well-pleased with?

Speaking in tongues, singing worship songs, and raising hands does not make me better than any other Christian. God looks at our hearts, and by this measure, I have fallen. I had carelessly allowed pride to creep into me instead of walking carefully in the ways of the Lord. Even if I speak in tongues, I would just be a resounding gong or clanging chamber. I would be nothing if I do not show love (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).

Instead of focusing on the differences which may cause disputes or stumbling, the Bible commands that we are to love God first with all that we are, and secondly to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). We can show love by offering encouragement or helping a fellow Christian friend in need—whatever their church background. My Bible study leader, for example, once called me out when I was feeling down and spoke words of encouragement to me. She reminded me of God’s love and truth, and in this way she lifted my spirit.

Having experienced several different denominations, I realize that our common love for God and longing for Him unites us as one body of Christ—as the bride of Christ—with the common goal of waiting for His coming and our entry to our common heavenly home (Ephesians 5:25-27). As we wait, we must stay alert and vigilant as one common body of Christ by fixing our sight on Jesus, sharing our common love for Christ with one another, and watching to see how Christ works in our individual lives despite our backgrounds. How beautiful is God’s love and hope! It knows no boundaries.

When We Found Out Our Baby Had A Heart Defect

When we first found out that our son had ventricle septal defect (VSD), we did not think much of it. Many children are born with holes in their heart, and many of these close over time. But by the third week, it was evident something was not right with our newborn son, N.

Feedings were short stints and left him extremely breathless. At times when the milk came too quickly, he’d cough and sputter, and milk might even come out through his nose. When he lay flat on his cot, we saw how vigorously his chest rose and fell, as though simply breathing took too much effort.

The pediatric cardiologist confirmed this when he measured N’s hole to be one of moderate to large size. By this point, his left lung was also slightly swollen due to the leak from the heart. His heart was also working double time to make up for the losses, leaving him more tired than most infants his age.

Though my husband and I are both seminary students, we are no spiritual giants. The diagnosis left us confused and saddened. I remember crying all the way home after that review. Recognizing that our son’s life was in danger, we had two options—to choose to believe in God’s sovereign will, or to abandon our faith altogether.The latter was ruled out almost immediately, and we knew we only wanted His will for our lives and nothing else.

The cardiologist told us that N needed surgery, and the thought of it scared us, but we knew it was time to call for our brothers and sisters to come alongside us. Perhaps our faith was being tested, but we surely did not have to brave this storm alone.

My husband Jonathan typed out a simple text explaining N’s situation and our need for prayer. I set up a broadcast group on WhatsApp and blasted that text to any and every one whom I knew would pray. Little did we expect the ripples of encouragement and practical help that came our way, and has continued to pour in till this day.

Right from the beginning, not a day passed without us receiving an encouraging text or message. Friends and friends of friends would drop me a note to press on with the feeding—tough as it was with N feeding twice as often as a regular newborn—and remind me that they are praying for us. God has used close girlfriends, aunties in church, and even the most obscure of friends from Secondary School to give me a boost every single day without fail. It gets very lonely and discouraging when you are all alone with an infant for hours on end, but these little messages reminded me of God’s love throughout the hardest days, and I knew N and I were remembered even through the roughest nights.

In church, people we hardly speak to came up to us and offered to pay for a session of N’s medical review, or to write us a cheque with an amount God had impressed upon their hearts. The church rallied intercessors in prayer, and cell groups have been moved to adopt us in their prayers. One pastor even allowed us to share N’s situation via a short video clip during his sermon on suffering, so the entire congregation will know what we’ve been going through.

As if these were not enough, God surprised us further when two family friends decided spontaneously that they would bring us homecooked soups once a week, so I would have less to prepare in the evenings. Pastors came and laid hands to bless and anoint our little family. Youth and young adults offered to take our older child to the playground to relieve us and give her some undivided attention. Clothing for N keep coming in bags such that we have not had to buy him a single thing since he was born.

And the blessings just keep coming.

This trial has only begun. But it has been made so much easier because of the community of believers rallying behind us in prayer and in every other practical way possible. We are reminded of the picture Paul painted in 1 Corinthians 12:25-26a, that God has put the body together, “so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. . .”

We now know in a very tangible way what it means to be One Body, and we are confident that we can stand firm in our faith because of those carrying us on their shoulders.

 

The Pitfall of Comparison

Written by Agnes Lee, Singapore

I can’t stop comparing myself to others. “Is he smarter than me? Is she prettier than me? Does she have more friends than I do?” While it can sound like an innocent habit, I ended up being sucked into it, unable to be thankful for whatever I had.

It started when I was a child. In my country, there is strong emphasis on education, and  naturally, my parents wanted me to do well in my studies. Being in a competitive environment where everyone would try their best to outdo each other, I studied hard. At the back of my mind, I was always thinking, “Did I do better than my cousins or my friends?”

As a teenager transiting into adulthood, my focus shifted. I compared my physical appearance to others’.  At my first job, I compared my salary with my friends’. I looked at the material possessions they had—their new clothes and new cars—and wondered if I could afford the same things.

Once I started, I could not stop. I found myself comparing every single detail about myself with others.  I became a perfectionist and developed a severe fear of missing out (FOMO). I wanted to be just as beautiful and rich as my friends were.

Blinded by the god of the world, I mistakenly thought these things would make me feel better. I worked hard to obtain what I wanted but my heart only felt emptier after. I craved for more and it became an endless pursuit that left me more tired than satisfied. I didn’t occur to me that I needed something magnificent and eternal—God—to fill the void in my heart.

In the end, my toxic habit of comparison made me lose a good friend of mine. At my first job, I got to know another lady who was a fresh graduate just like myself.  We joined the same department and were tasked to do the same role at work. We learned the ropes together and everything seemed to be going well.  However, I couldn’t stop comparing myself to her.

While I seemed like her good friend on the outside, I secretly disliked her. She was tall, slim, and beautiful, while I was short and average looking.  She was friendly and sociable, while I was reserved and quiet.  Our colleagues seemed to like her more than me.  The more popular she got, the more bitter I became. “Why is she better at everything that I am? That’s not fair,” I would think to myself.

Jealous of how she seemed to have everything going well in her life, I started ignoring her and giving her strange glances.  I could not accept that I was inferior to her.

She was naturally puzzled and angry by my actions and our friendship soon soured.  Fed up with my behavior, she started ignoring me and voiced her displeasure of me to others. We were no longer on talking terms, and soon, I felt like a loner in the company. I left the organization and lost contact with everyone there.

 

A New Perspective

 Many years later, after I came to know the Lord, I was reflecting on my quiet time passage from 1 Corinthians 12:15-18.  It struck me that all of us are different from each other for a reason—it allows us play a different role in the Body of Christ. That way, no one is more important than another.

It dawned upon me that my habit of comparison was not biblical since each member of the body is meant to be unique, so that the Body of Christ can function as one. Whatever traits I had were meant to enable me to contribute in a special capacity to the Kingdom of God.

I had allowed my insecurities, low self-esteem, and lack of self-love to consume me. The real problem was not that others were better than I am. It was with my own negative perception about myself.

Psalm 139:13-14 gave me great reassurance. It says I am fearfully and wonderfully made by my Creator. God Himself formed my inward parts and knitted me together in my mother’s womb. My seemingly “negative traits” were not mistakes that He made—How I am is exactly the way God intended.

God has given us different gifts and talents (Romans 12:6a) along with different looks. His thoughts and wisdom are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9) and He has planned a unique life for each of one of us that only we can live.

A life of endless comparison is not in His plan for us. Rather than wasting our lives away in such a manner and wallowing in self-pity, we can choose to surrender our lives to God, trusting in His plan.  When we anchor our identity in Him, we can be secure and will not be easily shaken by the world.

As I became convicted by this truth, I found myself increasing my love for God. His views became mine and I wanted to do His will and love those around me. I thank God that He has increasingly freed me from my natural tendency to compare myself to others.  His Word is like a lamp to my feet (Psalm 119:105) leading me out of the darkness of comparison. Whenever I think of comparing myself with others, I will remind myself of His truth from the living Word, of His sovereign will and unique plans for me during my limited time on earth.

Overtime, my relationships with others have improved. Although it is sad that my ex-colleague and I are no longer friends, I hope to meet her again someday to apologize to her, with hopes of eventual reconciliation.

Instead of a worldly FOMO, I have developed a holy FOMO—a fear of missing out God in my life. I now place pleasing God as my first priority. Tasting the kind of joy and freedom that only He can give, I never want to give Him up again for the life of darkness and comparison.