Saturday 19 December 2015

Communities of God: Caretakers (Part 2: Pitfalls)

This is a direct continuation of my previous post, 'Caretakers'. If you haven't read it, then I do strongly recommend you to! This post will be about what I feel are pitfalls and some stumbling blocks that caretakers often face as they serve their community; many of them which I personally experienced. I wished I could find a way to squeeze these into the previous post as part of the trilogy - but unfortunately that will become way too long. But I will still refer to these series of posts as a trilogy HAHA :) 

As caretakers, many things are against us. Our fleshly limitations - time, energy, resources, personal responsibilities and physical commitments; the world - temptations, material wealth, all sorts of fleshy gratification; the devil - moving in the spiritual realm against us, launching spiritual attacks that have an impact on the physical realm. Lastly, our own brokenness and sins, which will be what this post is about. Let's begin~

Depending on Ourselves to do God's work

The first one I will address is the lack of dependence of God and instead mainly depending on other things, which can be our titles, abilities, wisdom/understanding or resources. I want to bring up the story of the first king of Israel, Saul to illustrate this point. (Read 1 Samuel 13-15). Some of the points surfaced here are also relevant to our personal walk with God, as after all we are both servants (as caretakers) and children of God (as members of the Church and the specific communities) at the same time. My writing will be from the viewpoint of caretakers though. I'll do a summary below, for now just go with the longg flow!

Chapter 13
The first time Saul failed to depend on God was while he was waiting for the arrival of the prophet Samuel. I must say that Saul is really brave - v5-7 showed how bleak the situation was and yet he was willing to go on ahead with the battle against the Philistines without the assurance of God (in the presence of Samuel). Samuel as a priest was probably the one who was supposed to offer the offerings with his status as the prophet of God. Saul was a king and should not have made the offering himself, and by doing so Saul shows that he disregarded direct divine blessing that should come through Samuel from God. Saul, as the genera (caretaker) of his army, may have been pressured by the situation; the Philistines occupied Michmash and might at any moment simply charge down the valley upon Gigal. Saul only had 600 men with him (v15) against the multitudes of the Philistines (v5). A few hours of delay on Samuel part was seen as fatal in Saul's opinion, but that is only because he forgot/did not trust that even though Samuel was not there, the Sovereign LORD is. Isn't this just like us, caretakers, sometimes? God tells us to speak something 'odd' or difficult to say to our flock; to point out sins in another's life; to plan/lead events of a particular nature... And we panic/squirm/become uncomfortable, forgetting that even when we don't have the solution, we have the Solution-Provider with us. Instead of doing it God's way, we choose to do it our way? And as if to rub it in his face, Samuel comes RIGHT AFTER Saul has finished making the offerings. Not before, not during, not long after, but right after. I feel like what the Word of God is saying here is this: "If only you have waited just a bit more. If only you would have trusted God a little bit more. A bit more. That bit more would have made the difference. Why don't you just persevere?" A similar understanding comes to mind in 2 Peter 3:9a: "The Lord is not slow in keeping His promises, as some understand slowness...." The context is different in this verse, but it still speaks of the Lord's coming-to-save-the-day. Caretakers, let us not fall into this pitfall of depending on our own human wisdom and understanding of the 'right time' and the 'right thing' and the 'right way' to do the work of God. It's not ultimately about results (in the war with the Philistines, eventually Israel won despite Saul's disobedience), but about the lack of perseverance and obedience to God's command, as though He had not done enough to deserve our trust. 

Chapter 14
Just like us, Saul is a caretaker of his flock. His soldiers can't disobey him in the military - they honor him as their leader and king, obeying him unquestioningly (which may not be a good thing in civilian settings, but in the military is of utmost importance). Because of his (caretaker) actions, people suffered, needlessly, in my and his son's opinion (v29). In v24, Saul banned his solders from eating, probably so as to save time and continue pursuing the Philistines who were on the run (v22). Unfortunately, this ban caused some to be cursed, such as Jonathan (Saul's precious and beloved son) who was not aware and also some of the soldiers to resort to sin to meet their legitimate needs. We don't know if Saul gave this command after praying or Samuel told him to do so, but from Saul's track record of being impulsive and not seeking Godly counsel and instructions (again in v18-19), most likely he set it based on his own wisdom and thought process. Because of his dependence on himself and not on God, he caused suffering and sins to befall on his people. For us caretakers, as we get our community/flock to submit to and obey our instructions, are our instructions made with God in mind, with God's input and command as priority? Our inability to depend on God more than ourselves WILL surely and eventually shortchange our community - and surely that's not how we want to love them. 

Chapter 15
Saul, again, made a blunder. Samuel, on God's divine command, expressly commanded Saul to completely destroy the Amalekites and spare nothing, not even the cattle (v3). I am not certain why even the livestock too were ordered to be destroyed instead of taken; what I read from an online commentary mentions that it is so that Israel would be seen as an administrator of God's wrath on nations 'whose abominations made them ripe for destruction', instead of a murderous nation eyeing others' wealth and riches. I agree with this viewpoint and add my own: that God was also testing Saul to see if he would finally obey God. After all, the leader of God's chosen people must be in sync with God and willing to obey, or else the entire nation would not be God's desired instrument. After the previous two times that Saul depended on himself to make decisions, God, in His mercy, still gave him a third chance. The first time, God had mercy; He still let Saul be king, just that his kingdom/lineage will not last. The second time, nothing was said about his actions in 4:18-19 (based on the passage itself). The third time (v14-25), Saul not only did not destroy the livestock, letting Israel took them for themselves, but even sacrificed some of them to God - who told them to destroy the livestock! What irony, and I see so much parallels in this and our own personal walk with God, but let me focus on two things here: 
Firstly, Saul is an ambitious man and probably he valued wealth and splendor as well. There is nothing wrong with this, but he sought this at the expense of putting them before God's command, and the very thing he sought was taken from him. He was rejected as king (v26), the richest person in the entire nation, a blessing prepared and provided by God for the labour of the kingship of Saul, for the sake of some livestock - this is a warning us all, that whatever we do not surrender in our heart and put at God's feet will never last and will be taken away from us. What would his followers and community say, if they knew how much this person has strayed from God? What would Jonathan say about his father, and how could he continue to be proud of him - not only did his father disobey God, but also because of this disobedience took the opportunity to the throne away from him (Jonathan).

Secondly, Saul said in v24 that he was pressured by the people. As a king of the nation of people who obeyed him unquestioningly to fight, who actually starved themselves at his command, where did this sudden fear of the people come from? Sounds like an excuse. (Interlude: In fact, I can't help but raise the parallel that due to the ban, the soldiers ended up sinning by killing livestock and eating raw meat, and now again they sinned due to via livestock. Perhaps, this all happened because initially Saul did not seek the Lord prior to setting the ban on food in 14:24.) Regardless, the reaction/pressure by our community is real, and sometimes it is truly scary. Numerically, we are much smaller than our flock and especially in today's society, authority is not something that people innately value and observe very much. In a world of democratic elections, caretakers and leaders in Christian settings too need to learn to appeal to those they are serving. However, the lesson from the story of Saul is that as caretakers, we have to stand firm. A compromise can have disastrous effects, not just on our personal ambitions to serve God powerfully, but also on the community - we want to lead them to God, not to sin. 

If we depend on ourselves and not on God as we serve His people and community as caretakers, the outcome would be: 
We do not grow while serving. In the three settings where Saul could have chosen to depend on God, he did not. From chapter 13 to 14, he committed the same mistake. In 15, again he chose to not heed the commands of God. There was no growth; there was no stretching of his perseverance, faith or wisdom. To Saul's credit, there was sparks of obedience throughout the chapters, but they seemed opportunistic, only when his interests coincided with God instead of a wholehearted obedience. Caretakers, each time we depend on ourselves, we are simply discarding a chance for God to understand Him better, and to mould us to be more like His son, Jesus. Some pain, yet no gain, leads to great pain.

We miss out opportunities both for our communities and ourselves. Jonathan explicitly stated in 14:30: "My father has made trouble for the country.... if the men had eaten... would not the slaughter of the Philistines have been even greater?" If only Saul depended and acted based on God's counsel, the entire army would not have lost the chance to destroy the Philistines completely - they could have killed more of them and there was also no need for internal strife amongst the soldiers as Saul needed to fulfill his oath to kill Jonathan for breaking the ban. Also, for Saul himself, if he depended on God's providence and promise of choosing him as king over Israel, obeying the command to destroy the livestock in chapter 15, would not have lost his throne and also his wealth and the opportunity to pursue the ambitions in his heart. From chapter 15 onward, His reign and his battles/wars will no longer have the approval, support and assurance of the Most High. As caretakers, are our instructions and plans for the community made with God in mind and His input as priority? If not, I pray that God will open our eyes to how we are shortchanging everyone.

We may cause burnt out and sin in the lives of our communities and ourselves. Saul, by pushing his soldiers to pursue the Philistines with no rest nor food, resulted them in being fatigued (v28), so fatigued that they did not obey the Law which stated that they cannot eat meat with blood in it, thus sinning/ As caretakers, we must remember that pushing our community/flock too hard may instead be counter-productive and damage them. For the best balance of the pushing and resting, we have to ask God and depend on His plans so that we can build them up properly - Saul's human wisdom probably did not foresee this unfolding of events. Also, for Saul himself, he might not have resisted the pressures from his soldiers (v24) because he was fatigued physically and emotionally from the entire war campaign. And why was he so tired? Naturally because wars are tiring, but also because he did much on his own accord based on his own thinking and not listening to Samuel nor God's instruction. His burnt-out and fatigue resulted in him not enforcing God's command; resulted in himself sinning. Caretakers, we must depend on God and His command; His command will definitely have 'rest' in it, because God knows us and our and our communities' needs 'even before a word is on my tongue' (Psalms 139:4) 

We do not know how to sit still and wait upon God. We only know how to 'do something'. Almost at each juncture where Saul needs to make a decision in the 3 chapters, he chooses acting instead of waiting on God. On some occasions, he expressed regret over his actions (14:33b-35, 15:24-25,30). Thus this hints that perhaps it is not that Saul was trying to disobey God or that he was unsubmissive, but that he doesn't know what else to do when the situation comes. The only way he knows to express his devotion to God was through action, through serving and not waiting, being still and praying. As caretakers we may fall into this trap, whereby we keep wanting to do something for our community/flock, even when God tells us to be patient or to just wait and see. We have to learn to love them with and without actions, because God is still working on them regardless of what we are doing or not doing :)

Update: We do not know how to depend on fellow caretakers. In chapter 14, there was a lack of cooperation and understanding between Saul and his son Jonathan. Jonathan went to the enemies' camp without telling his father, and thankfully God acted on behalf of the Israelites, and that Saul was an opportunist who took the opportunity Jonathan created, and again thankfully not as the cost of his life. In the second instance in v24, after Saul declared the ban, he did not ensure that Jonathan knew about it, which resulted in conflict amongst the two that was literally life-threatening. Thankfully the rest of the soldiers (community) intervened. However, there were still costs to their actions. Caretakers, we must be united and support one another. Perhaps if Jonathan and Saul were by each others' side, supporting, correcting, rebuking and pushing another towards God, Saul would not have sinned and lost the favor of God as king. Communication and trust is something that we have to develop and build intentionally, for many of us caretakers may not have a long history together. To serve the community of God and give our very best for them would take ALL that we have.

Community Effects

For this portion, I would talk about the execution aspect, in terms of how we care for the community i.e. how we treat them, some of which may not be wise/beneficial for them.

Firstly, we may not give them our best in terms of tangible and specific serving skills. These skills can be our teaching of the Word of God - how we facilitate discussions and learning. In terms of musicianship if we are leading sung worship in our community; intentionally improving technically to allow people worship God in a better environment. It can also be the choice of words or the tone we use when we disciple or simply interact with them. Or gathering feedback. Or planning events; or anything. We have to get better at these skills, to help build up our community better! For myself, I believe that God has given me gifting in discipling people and building them up. This blog in itself is an example of how I have been working to improve my skills. However, I am weaker in speaking into the lives of people verbally, and there also aren't that many opportunities. One rare opportunity came my way recently - for the recent bible study camp, I was asked if I wanted to be the Bible study leader (BSL) to lead discussions in my group. Naturally, I said yes to the opportunity to improve in this skill. However, I was required to go for a briefing before the camp itself, and in my laziness and great dislike for briefings I immediately rejected the role. I told that to one of the members in the Christian community I'm caretaking of in school and the feedback I got was "how to feel when my caretaker always say he is lazy". Apparently, my laziness had been negatively influencing those around me, and I wasn't even aware. It was like an awakening slap on my face of sorts for me - because I always thought of laziness as part of 'me' and contained in me. Over the next few days I was discussing this with God and eventually I decided to take up the BSL role - and by God's grace, the camp committee also accommodated my late request (thanks a tonne!!!!!). And praise God that through that 6 days + 1 briefing (which I forced myself to turn up at), I can see my verbal discipleship skills improving so so so significantly. For you, maybe what is stopping you from improving your skills may be laziness too, or it may be lack of awareness for the need to; feelings of inadequacy or that God will not use you. Anything, really. But I hold on to this verse, and I hope this verse will encourage you too! 

Psalm 144:1 NIV - Praise be the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.
The battle and wars will come whether we're ready or not. Because we live in the era of the last times, where the devil opposes the reign of God. So why not let's work towards being well-equipped instead? For ourselves, and also for our communities :)

Special note: A specific skill I want to mention that is extremely useful for us caretakers is the ability to reduce costs (and maximize benefits) for the community. What I mean is that we must be aware that there are costs of participating in community programs and structure. Meetings take time; planning takes resources; discipling requires effort; turning up and participating expends emotional and social energy. And most of these all costs money as well. Our communities trust us and entrust what they have to us, and thus we must be faithful stewards of these as well. The point is not about "no pain, no gain" but instead "least pain, most gain"Can we shorten the time and frequency needed for our meetings, briefings and cellgroups, so people can go home earlier to have adequate rest and prepare for their work/school/appointments the next day? Can we have program-planning processes that doesn't require everybody, instead of just asking everyone to turn up for the sake of 'convenience' or 'so they are aware'? As we reduce the costs for our community, naturally as caretakers we would also benefit - and now we have more with which to give and devote into the community or other areas of service unto God. This skill develops as we simply become more aware of our communities needs, and grow in our desire to meet them; and also in tandem as we get better at our serving skills (the above point).

(Thanks Desmond for this part - I'm only editing what he typed!) Secondly, we as caretakers, see certain deeds/actions as beneficial but sometimes fail to emphasize the heart postures or values behind them. It is very common for us to overemphasize the importance of the act itself rather than the spirit behind such acts - the 'why'. An example would be punctuality. I used to view punctuality for cellgroups (lifegroups) and church services as THE most important thing for Christians to uphold and not neglect/lack. When my lifegroup mates arrived on time or early, I would affirm them for being punctual. Nothing wrong with that. However, for those who were late, I would say sarcastic words to gently rebuke them. However, eventually the level of sarcasm within me went up and I even suggested like a coin box for people to donate 10 cent each time they are late. I felt that this would help people to be punctual. Until one day when a brother approached me and told me that I was being a little legalistic. It then dawned on me: ”what makes me different from the Pharisees and Sadducees whom Jesus criticized for being so legalistic?” As caretakers, we need to model after Jesus (i.e. grow towards Christ-likeness). Regardless of whether such suggestions would really resolve the issue of punctuality, was I caring more about the practice itself, or whether those who are late felt loved enough to want to be punctual for the others in their community? In order to trigger a genuine heart transformation amongst our communities, we need to see from God’s perspective:
1 Samuel 16:7 NIV - “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
With that in mind, we can then change our response to combating issues in our community. To those early or on time, I continued to affirm/commend them. For those who were late, I tried to figure out why they were late before commenting. For those who were persistently late, I explained the rationales behind valuing punctuality, rather than jumping into the act of being punctual itself. 

Another common issue along the same vein is attendance. Now the first thing we must be certain of is the rationale behind emphasizing attendance. By turning up at community occasions, we (1) honour God by upholding our commitments to the community He has placed us in (2) be Jesus to our community as we love and be loved by them (3) benefit by growing more in God and God's Word through fellowship with God’s people, hearing testimonies of our brothers and sisters about the goodness of God, and also through a time of teaching/discussions. Similar as the above, we can and should affirm/commend those who turn up: “Thanks for coming despite your schedule/long day. Your desire for God inspires me.” For those who have not been coming, we then find out why - and react accordingly, in love and support, to help them see the point of turning up (if they do not already see it.) The tricky thing is always to decide and agree upon what is 'valid' reasons for not upholding our commitments to the community. 

To sum up: In all circumstances, caretakers must never, consciously or unconsciously let the physical acts of being punctual, present or anything of similar nature (such as acts of giving) distract us from what is truly important! We are not growing our communities to be robots mechanically doing what is good and right but with wrong heart motives/postures. We, as caretakers, are growing them (and ourselves too), to understand what they (and we) should be doing and allow them to do it out of their own accord, as inspired by God. Having said that, the onus of individuals being convicted in the heart to act in a particular manner is ultimately on the person himself/herself, via the grace of God. Our job as caretakers is to provide knowledge, experience and the Word of God and then to encourage adoption, as in 1 Corinthians 3:6 NIV - “I planted the seed. Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.”
(Thanks so much Desmond!)

Lastly, I also want to briefly mention this not really as a pitfall but as a blindspot: finding and building new leaders. Many leaders (caretakers) do a good job in everything and continue to serve God powerfully, but eventually our time will come and we must pass on the baton to someone else. Sometimes we can foresee the end of this season of serving in the particular community, but sometimes it's very sudden and unexpected. If we have not been consciously building new leaders, the community may be the one that is the most affected. Such was the case of of Joshua. Moses build up Joshua to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land and Joshua did just that. However, when Joshua passed away there was no one to take up the next leg and thus the time of Judges occurred and Israel suffered significantly during this time. I once had the privilege of working a team of people to pioneer and build a cellgroup in a school (not mine) whereby we only have 2 members of our church there. We were off to quite a good start and had quite a few plans and structures in place to keep it going, and in a way because I was quite active I took the lead in some of these initiatives we have. However, about 3 or 4 months into it, I was transited into another ministry and thus the work was left to the rest of my team members. Unfortunately, I think I didn't do a good job in imparting and also empowering them with the conviction and skills because after I left, there was something close to a hiatus on the pioneering work. That was when I realize the importance of passing the baton. If not, the community will be like a flock of sheep without shepherd and easily devoured and damaged by the devil. (Side note:I know that sometimes its because it is easier and faster if do things ourselves as compared to watching and guiding someone else to do it, but the costs are still borne by the community ultimately. So no excuse!)

Forgetting we are part of the community (SPECIAL MENTION!)

Lastly, I want to give special mention to this pitfall that virtually hits all caretakers. After sometime in our role, especially if you possess a title, we often start to forget that we are part of the community. I am really really guilty of it. By 'forget', what I meant was that we have the 'been there, done that' mindset, and we stop doing a lot of the things that we get our community to do. We don't follow the program and are often more concerned about our responsibilities within the community (which may not be wrong, but is often inadvisable if we overdo it). Recently, at the bible study camp that I repeatedly mention, I saw and personally practised this 'transcendent caretaker' attitude. During the last night where the camp committee chairperson was talking to all the campers, I looked back and saw quite a large number of the older people (who are also the caretakers) in the fellowship community, essentially just doing their own stuff, whatever it is. I was a little bored and tired, so I also went to find one of my caretaker friends and chatted. I was soon joined by another and the three of us were oblivious to the program for about half an hour. (Dear chairperson, if you're reading this I'm sorry!) Whatever reasons we have as caretakers, I still feel that we in generally have this attitude that we're above the program of some sort - and I hope that I will rectify this mindset of mine. There are always something to learn or to be reminded about, even with our additional exposure/knowledge. And even if we truly are so familiar with it, I think we should still refrain for the sake of our community - what examples do we set for them if we treat the programs/initiatives/actions by other leaders and caretakers of the community so lightly? We must not lose our credibility as caretakers or cause the program or other caretakers to lose their credibility, purpose in the eyes of our community. (Having said that, I think this is something that is incredibly difficult to combat for myself :O)

While the above is about following programs/initiatives/actions etc, the same can be said about our holiness. What we warn and teach our community about, as caretakers we must also watch ourselves, as written in Galatians 6:1 - Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you may also be tempted.


Caretaking is a noble service - it's the job Jesus first assumed after He started His public ministry on Earth. He found a few fishermen as disciples and started the community called 'Jesus and His beloved disciples'. It was also one of last few explicit acts of service He did before He went up to heaven. (John 21) He asked Peter, one of His closest disciples: "Do you love me?" "Yes", came the answer. Then Jesus said: "Feed my sheep." This was the call to caretaking, which Peter accepted and carried to his death. After that, however, Peter made a blunder and was publicly scolded by Paul (in Galatians 2:10-21) for drawing a divisive line amongst the entire community of God's people - between the Jews and the Gentile. We too, like him, are going to make mistakes as caretakers no matter how holy and learned and transformed we are. Even as we continually avoid pitfalls or climb out of them as we serve God, we are ultimately still imperfect people, and the communities we build will at its best be an imperfect structure. But our hope is not in imperfect people or imperfect structure, but in the perfect God who will turn and use all things for His purpose - His good, perfect and pleasing will.

I pray that we hold the example of Jesus the universe's best Caretaker and grow towards it.
John 10:11-18a NIV - "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep."
"I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me - just as the Father knows me and I know the Father - and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring the also. They too will listen to my voice, and there share be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life - only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own accord."

No comments:

Post a Comment