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It has been a month since I have been away. And how I miss being here, how I miss being part of this family and how I miss serving you as your pastor. We often don’t realise what is important to us, what has meaning to us, until we lose it or we are away from it.
It is interesting what distance helps us see. Will you join me in prayer?
God, may the words from my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you. May the words be seeds and may our hearts be seedbeds that these words will germinate, grow, and flower, and bear fruit. All this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Distance allows us to see things from a different perspective. It may not necessarily be a bird’s eye view, or God’s eye view – but the distance I had while I was travelling in the US allowed me to see a wider picture. It is just like taking a photograph – to fit everything into the frame we have to step further away. I needed to see the bigger picture. When we are too close, we have a narrow perspective and some of the important things that is not in the centre but on the peripherals might be cut off.
That distance has also allowed me to be away from the situation here – being involved and deep in the situation sometimes obscures and distracts us from the bigger picture. Sometimes in situations like that, we fall back to old ways, old habits and what we are used to do, and what we are good at doing, instead of trying something new. Sometimes we are locked in by what people think we are and we are not able to spread our wings and trying something else and experiment, push the boundaries and be someone new.
We have been trying to plan ahead better in the past few months and what of the things that stirred me was Jaime’s question about why FCC exists. The answer is of course, YES! We matter. In my time away, I have been able to see why we matter and why we need to continue to do the work we need to do. We need to do better in planning ahead. I was very fortunate to be part of Rev Elder Don Eastman’s one day institute in the MCC General Conference titled “Growing Your Church Inside Out.” I had so many aha-moments during this.
I was very lucky to get to know Rev Elder Don Eastman better on the ferry returning from Victoria to Seattle. He recently shared with me an old sermon of his – one that he preached years before at the 1997 General Conference in Sydney, Australia.
“We need to see our future in multiples of one. Church growth is not about numbers, it is about a number: the number one.
Luke 15 tells three stories to explain how important every individual is to God. In the first story, the owner of 100 sheep discovers one is missing. So valuable is that one, he leaves the 99 in the pasture to find the lost sheep. When he returns with the sheep, he calls friends and neighbours to rejoice with him; that which was lost has been found. In the second story God is pictured as a woman having ten precious coins, and one is lost. She lights a lamp, and sweeps and searches until she finds the lost coin. Then she calls her friends and neighbours and says, “Celebrate with me; that which was lost has been found!” At this point, Jesus stops to explain that the angels in God’s presence celebrate over one person whose heart has changed. In the third story, a father has two sons. One is restless and impatient to receive his inheritance so he leaves the family. The family is broken, the son is lost. In time, son loses all he has and is destitute. Broken and desperate, he decides to return to ask his father to hire him as servant. But the father treats him as royalty, and makes a great celebration to restore him to the family. Even when the jealous older brother is outraged at the father’s generosity, the explanation is simple: the lost has been found.”
What is your story? How did your life change when you came to FCC? How are you the one in the story? What is your story of being the one? God’s love is unconditional and God’s promise is universal. Whoever believes finds eternal life. We need to tell our story of One.
Jaime and I echo each other. You will hear her prayer echoing in my sermon. We have been stagnating. We are doing the same thing over and over again. You know what they say about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It is insanity. We need to change. We tried changing, and it wasn’t very successful. I am very grateful for the different contributions folks have given to the church and the voices that has spoken up. In that space and time away, and the training I have received, I heard many things that made me go “Aha! That was what they were trying to say.” Our financial continuity committee did a survey last year and the results echo the research done on many churches that examine why growth happens in churches, why they stagnate, and why churches die.
We need to be dynamic not static. We need to be a movement, not a monument – to quote Bishop Yvette Flunder from her sermon here during Amplify Conference in 2014.
Our faith and spiritual life is the same as well. It needs to be dynamic and not static. It cannot remain where it is. It is not a destination, but a journey. And FCC needs to be dynamic and not static.
We need to be building capacity. I cannot expect myself to do the same things and expect a different result. Our structure and our skill sets need to be radically different for growth to break the 100-150 barrier. I need to be a different kind of pastor, a different kind of leader. When I was away, Pauline messaged me about the upcoming sermon series and I was relieved to receive her text because I, too, was struggling and realising that we are not ready. We are not at that stage where the ministries are ready to share about what they are doing. We need more time. I really appreciated what happened because that is what we are looking out for. We need people to step forward to voice their concerns so we can all discern together where we are moving.
The leadership sets certain directions, but we also need the participation to collectively discern where God is leading us, to discern the best way forward, the projects we embark on. We do not have limitless resources and we need to wisely channel where they will have the greatest impact and where we need to put in our hearts and our souls, our time and our energy, not just here in church, not just in individual lives, but in the community outside. We need to learn how to be different and engage differently. It is time to change. I really value people being courageous enough to speak up. Am I so frightening that people are afraid of saying “You know, I don’t think this is such a good idea…”
Perhaps you have a certain impression of what kind of leader I am. Perhaps you have a perspective that I am iron fisted, and authoritarian. When Pauline came on board, I took the role of the authoritarian father. Many churches have this kind of structure – one pastor is the nurturing mother role, and the other takes the disciplinarian father role. We are a queer church – let’s not buy in to this model.
I made the mistake of thinking that we are complimentary and I will focus on what I am good at, and she will focus on what she is good at. But that doesn’t really work. Have you been injured one of your hands and you have to rely on using the other hand a lot more? What happens is that hand you use more will get stronger and the other hand grows weaker and weaker and that does not help the process of healing. Sometimes that leads to even more injuries.
While Pauline and I have different gifts, that doesn’t mean we do not push ourselves in the areas we are weak in. My growing edge and the challenge to myself is to be as good a listener and communicator as Pauline is. And likewise, she will push herself to be a better advocate and activist outside. And she has been – not by choice, but by circumstances. She said yes to the Pink Dot video and she delivered more than we can ever dream of. When I was away, she participated on a panel to engage the conservatives. Who do we send? “Send me,” said Pauline.
Often times, we think we are not the best at a certain task, and we leave the task to the person we think is best at doing it. “I am not good enough, I am not the best, therefore that person will handle it.” And we leave the weight of doing all the stuff to that person. That’s not the way. And often, we are the ones guilty as well. “I am the best person at this, and I am going to one doing it and I will keep doing it and doing it and doing it.” But that leaves no room for other people to try doing it, and that leaves no room for people to grow into being good at doing it. That, I think, is my failure. I need to move out of the way so that others can step up. So that others have the space to grow and try it out. And we do not leave people who want to try things out at the deep end of the pool to struggle on their own to figure things out for themselves. Swim, float or drown. We need to do better to support, to mentor, to raise up people to do the work we are called to do.
I am going to speak more about that but I want to go deeper into what I learned from the workshop.
This sermon series is titled “Heart for the House.” But I was thinking to myself, the heart is not enough. The heart is just one organ. We need to have the muscles. We need to be growing the church from the inside out. We need to be developing programs for all people in all stages of spiritual growth and help people to move from one stage to another.
There are 6 principles of spiritual growth and 4 stages of spiritual growth.
Principles of spiritual growth.
1. Spiritual growth and engagement are related. High levels of engagement produce greater spiritual commitment and result in spiritual growth.
2. Spiritual growth is relational. Engagement is the emotional feeling of belonging, of being valued and of making valuable contributions within the congregation.
3. Engagement is more than involvement in church activities. Involvement in church activities does not predict or drive long-term spiritual growth. Engagement is about being “wholehearted” and “all in”.
4. There is a continuum of spiritual growth that can be seen as stages of faith or as self-actualization in the realization of human needs.
5. The role of the church to individuals is of primary influence in the early stages of spiritual growth then it shifts to secondary influence when personal spiritual practices become more important as the building blocks of spiritual growth.
6. Spiritual growth never stops for an individual. There is always a next step.
There are 4 Stages of Spiritual Growth, from the book “Reveal: Where Are You?” by Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson.
Stage 1: Exploring Christianity: Individuals who do not involve God in their daily lives. They believe in God but have not formed beliefs about Christ, and they need others to help them interpret spiritual issues. Their needs are weekend seeker worship services and opportunities to connect with others.
Stage 2: Growing in Christ: Early believers who are growing in their faith through church experiences and are starting to incorporate personal spiritual practices into their normal routine outside the church. Their needs include weekend worship services, small group opportunities and basic personal spiritual practices.
Stage 3: Close to Christ: Believers with much higher levels of personal spiritual practices including prayer and finding direction from the Bible. Serving is an important expression of their faith; small groups are less important but spiritual friends increase in importance to them. Their needs include serving opportunities and advanced spiritual practices. Weekend worship services are declining in importance for them.
Stage 4: Christ-Centered: Individuals with dramatically higher levels of spiritual behaviors and attitudes. They love God more than anything, experience prayer as constant conversation with God, help to mentor others and see service as a way of life. Their needs are mentoring opportunities and a wide range of serving others.
After reading all this, I wondered how do we do to serve people from each stage? Are we open to allow you to participate, to find what you need here? There is a lot to do, and I am not saying that we are going to develop this overnight. It is a process of discernment, exploration and working out what we want to do.
Then we need to think about what we do to help people move from one stage to another and not just letting them stay where they are. This made me think – Rev Yap and I get very mad and angry and vocal about the lack of participation in the advocacy, social justice work and interfaith dialogue that is so important. The distance away helped me ask the question – other than our sermons from the pulpit, how else are folks brought along to do this? Are there opportunities for engagement, are there programs to help people understand better what we are doing and why it is so important?
And I realised there is work to be done there. We will develop programs & initiatives. And we will put in energy into this. My request is for you to show up – to participate – to be open. To participate with an open mind and an open heart to allow yourselves to be transformed and allow yourselves to be dynamic and not static. To allow yourselves to ask questions, explore, and grow.
I have failed you by limiting how we do things here like a bonsai. A bonsai is a small plant because it is put in a small pot. All you do is to shape the plant by pruning it, snipping here and snipping there. It is nice to look at, but it still remains small. We are not looking for small bonsai trees. We are looking for trees that grow from mustard seeds. We are looking for faith that grows out from mustard seeds.
That’s what we are trying to do here. That’s what we should be doing. That’s what we are going to do. Are you on board? Are you excited? Are you inspired? I hope that you are, because I sure am. And I want to change myself to be the leader to be able to guide you along that path. I don’t want to do the things the same old way. I do not want to see FCC remain stagnant and remaining where we are in a comfortable air conditioned space where we just interact with one another and have a good Sunday.
We cannot just have muscles. Muscles alone is not enough. We need the skeleton. We need to develop the structure and the systems that support and resource the work we are going to do. We need to improve with open and effective communications with each other, we need new programs that are efficiently launched and effectively sustained. We need all hands on board and all hands on deck to do that. This is the platform that will allow us to serve people at different stages of their faith journey and spiritual growth. This will also provide the platform where you go out and engage and do what you are passionate in, to do the work we are called to do as the Body of Christ out there. There is a lot to do, and it isn’t going to be just one person doing it – it takes all of us.
And we need to find our heart and our soul – because if you just have muscles and skeleton, you lack direction, you the lack the drive, you lack the passion. That is the heart for the house. That is the heart for God. This is what we want to be. We want FCC to be well-known here, and a resource for progressive Christianity in Singapore. We want to be actively involved in social justice, peacemaking and fierce loving.
I got to know the pastor of Joy MCC, the MCC Church 2 blocks from Pulse Club in Orlando. When I shared with her what we did in Singapore – that 700 people showed up at Hong Lim Park for the candlelight vigil 2 days after the shooting, she was moved to tears. It became a source of strength for her and her community – that people halfway around the globe felt something and stood in solidarity with them.
Then, in my mind, I thought – we should have been the ones who organised the candlelight vigil for Orlando. I have failed. We should have been the ones. We have shirked away from our role and our responsibility in our call because we were afraid. Yes, religion is out of bounds of Hong Lim Park. But we can still organise a candlelight vigil without saying anything religious. Jesus said “Do not be afraid.” Why are we afraid? We are not going to create a riot. We are not inciting violence. I hope there will not be another tragedy. I hope there will not be another shooting. I hope that we are not going to be needed, to be called to do something like that again. But regrettably, this is the state of the world today – full of hate and violence. It will happen again. And where will we be? We need to be there. We need to show up. And we need to love fiercely, courageously. Unafraid. We need to show up to testify to love.
We need to be leading the charge for decriminalising of 377A. We should be leading the way for marriage equality after that. We are not going to shirk away here. This is our call. This is who we are. We need to be leading the way for interfaith dialogue and peace making and bridge building. This is the world we live in, and this is the way we can impact it. We are not going to sit back and watch the world fall to pieces and there is nothing we can do. We can do something. We cannot give in to hopelessness. We are the people of hope, we are the followers of the Resurrected One. We, of all people, need to know what we need to do. This is in our DNA, this is in the DNA of Christianity.
We will be the ones who show up and change people’s minds about Christianity and people won’t go “Christianity = hypocrisy”, “Christianity = hate.” Let us show up and show people who we really are. We are not going to take a back seat and let other people represent our faith. We are going to represent our faith, not as the younger sibling from the parable of the Prodigal. We are full children of God, not second class citizens, not the one you want to keep out of sight when people visit because you are embarrassed about that child. We, LGBT, straight, whoever you are, as members of FCC, as people in this house – recognise that you are fully beloved, fully one of the family and that comes with responsibility.
The trip helped me see a lot of things. And one big thing is this – I cannot do it alone. We need to do it together. With God’s help – and God is always helping us and God is always with us. It is we who are forgetful.
Do you remember this? This concept drawing done by Zihao was done in March 2012. Almost 4 and a half years ago. When I saw the presentation that Gary forwarded me, I saw the figures there for the fundraising for the building before we even found this place. The amount was a lot less than what we needed and we also managed to raise what we needed at the end.
And this is a picture of concept of a LGBT community center. I must admit I have forgotten. Being immersed in the day to day operations of church, I lost sight of the vision of who we are called to be. This is not all. This is just a building. Yet, it is a symbol of who we aspire to be.
This space – One Commonwealth – isn’twhere we are supposed to end up. Not yet. This is just a milestone. This is just a rest stop along the way. This is just an oasis along that journey in the desert. Just as our spiritual growth never stops and there is always a next step, FCC’s journey never stops and there is always a next step. And I don’t think that LGBT center is the destination either. When we get there – and I know we will, I just don’t know when. When we get there, God will reveal to the generation then what the next step would be. For us now, we know what we have to do. We need to put our muscles, our skeleton, our hearts and our souls to get there.
The heart for the house is about a commitment to this community striving to live out our call to be the body of Christ. Our “YES” to God’s invitation to participate in the justice work, the peace work, in the love work – not just but including our personal spiritual growth. Not just our own spiritual growth but the growth of all those around us.
Are you willing to join me on this adventure – To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God? I think this is what we are called to do. I think this is the moment and this is the time. This is our call and we are the people.
Will you say yes?