Written by: Lemuel Teo (Photo by: Ronald Lim)

A parable from an empty vending machine

It was a humid and sunny afternoon, and I was desperate for air-conditioning. The only thing on my mind was getting to the university library in the shortest span of time. Along the way, I saw a foreign construction worker attempting to buy a drink from the vending machine. As I walked past him, something in me felt that maybe I should help him, as he looked a bit confused. However, I chose to walk on instead.

After a few paces, I thought, “Maybe he needs some coins.” I happened to have a small purse full of coins, so I turned around. There were two more of his friends with him, all of them gesticulating animatedly at the vending machine, and pointing at the red “sold out” lights.

Getting nearer, I saw that he wanted a bottle of 100PLUS, but it was sold out. I pointed to the nearby bookstore, “Inside there might have.” He looked hesitant and reluctant, turning to walk away. I wondered why: maybe he felt out-of-place from the nicely done up, air-conditioned bookstore purposed for students. I offered to go in and check if they sold 100PLUS inside. Again, he was reluctant; but I insisted.

Alas, they only carried Aquarius. I bought a bottle nonetheless. I told him that the bookstore did not sell 100PLUS, but Aquarius was similar. I wanted to give him the bottle for free, but he would not take it; I eventually accepted a one-dollar coin. I asked where he worked, and he pointed at the nearby construction site. He thanked me, I wished him well, and he went back to his work site. I sincerely hoped that the cold drink would provide some relief from the unrelenting sun.

This brief encounter set me thinking. I was baffled at his hesitation in entering the bookstore; more so with the possibility that it sold the drink he was looking for. Maybe he did not know that bookstores in Singaporean schools usually sold snacks and drinks too. Or it could be that he felt excluded from using that space meant for students. Either way, he barred himself from even thinking about setting foot into that place.

The same could be said for how non-Christians view the churches in Singapore. It is innately human to search for purpose, love, and acceptance. As Christians, we know we can find these within the body of Christ. However, non-Christians might try to find them from everywhere else, be it from a high-paying job, meaningful volunteerism, or in relationships. Without the love of Christ, such avenues of self-actualisation would be found deficient, leading to disappointment, much like being confronted with the red “sold out” light.

Even if the church lived up to her mandate of being a community that is “devoted to one another in love” (Romans 12:10 NIV), entering a church building might seem undesirable or daunting to non-Christians. They may not know that the church can provide true love in an accepting community; they could feel unworthy of stepping into a church. Either way, they prohibit themselves from even crossing the doors of our sanctuaries.

There are many possible reasons for one choosing not to entertain the thought of entering a church. My maternal grandmother has been resistant to Christianity — she is deeply loyal to her beliefs in ancestral worship and the worship of her gods. The mere mention of anything remotely “Christian” will invoke a scowl from her, causing me to wonder if she would ever be open to going to church. (I haven’t dared to ask.)

Judging from my encounter with that foreign construction worker who did not want to enter the bookstore, I reasoned with myself, “If I can’t bring him into the bookstore to buy a drink, I can bring the drink out to him.” Some of our family members and friends will reject invitations to go for a church service despite numerous attempts. Bringing the church to them could be a better alternative. We can demonstrate Christ’s power when we share our personal stories of how we’ve encountered Him.

I once had a conversation with a friend about “miraculous healings.” He thinks that these accounts of healings from sickness and physical impairment are staged. It capitalised on people’s desire to believe in the miraculous, and preyed on their naivety. I felt this was an opportunity to share about the veracity of God’s healing power; I shared about how I prayed for someone to receive healing in his injured back. I explained to him that I did not just believe in God’s healing power, I have personally witnessed divine healings. Although the conversation did not lead to a typical gospel presentation, I believe that some lies were dispelled through my testimony. I learnt that our individual faith stories are undoubtedly more tailor-made to the questions from our friends as compared to a generic sermon in church.

However, this means that we have to be well aware of the needs of the friends around us. The man I met at the vending machine did not need money — he had more than enough coins; he simply needed access to somewhere selling drinks. When I stopped to listen to him for a few seconds, I found out what he really wanted: a cold, isotonic drink. Similarly, when we intentionally slow down to listen deeply to the inner longings expressed by our friends, we will be able to discern their needs accurately.

Proverbs 18:15 (MSG) highlights, “Wise men and women are…always listening for fresh insights.” As we converse with our friends, it is easy to be caught up with advancing our own points at the expense of listening out for deeper questions our friends may have.

Some time last year, I was telling a Christian sister about the struggle I had with other Christians of a more “charismatic inclination.” To my surprise, she did not immediately try to convince me of her opinion. Instead, she probed further and drew out a fear I had — connecting with God in a strongly emotional way. She explained to me how we all could holistically connect to God, and it includes us connecting authentically with Him through our emotions. As she listened to my sharing, she was looking out for underlying concerns I had.

When we partner with the Holy Spirit in our daily lives, we can effectively attend to the uncertainties in our friends. If we need to explain our faith, Jesus tells us, “Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11 NIV). He will give us the right words to say in such moments.

It is also important for us to stay connected with Him throughout the day, so that we would be ready when these moments arise. Paul beseeches us to “pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers…” (Ephesians 6:18 NLT).

In noticing the physical needs of the people I come into contact with, I am learning the importance of being attuned to their deeper emotional and spiritual needs. In the physical, we use our eyes or ears to observe our surroundings. However, when we move beyond the natural, we need to heighten our spiritual sensitivity to what the Holy Spirit is revealing to us. This is done through cultivating the discipline where we “follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives” (Galatians 5:25 NLT).

It can be intimidating to initiate spiritual conversations with non-Christians or to invite them to church. The truth is: all of us are thirsting for purpose in life. Jesus taught, “Those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life” (John 4:14 NLT). In our interaction with the world, may we be carriers of His living water, whether inside or outside a church.

LEMUEL enjoys good conversations over a cup of kopitiam kopi. He connects with God while playing the piano and is frequently in awe of His creation—sunsets, sea breezes, and tropical downpours. View his attempts at capturing interesting or beautiful moments @lemuelteo.

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