The Gospel & Christ’s Church – An Anchor for Home-life During COVID ft. the Agapes
Posted on 6 Aug 2021 by Elsha Liew
CERC sat down with Alpha Agape in a conversation in December 2019 where he spoke about how the Agapes came to CERC, and what made them decide to settle in CERC as their family church. Watch his interview here.
Now, one-and-a-half years into the COVID pandemic in Malaysia, Alpha and Esther open up about how the family is coping after things fall apart in the nation and the world over
by Elsha Liew
“What keeps me going as a Christian today would definitely be an understanding of who Jesus Christ is. He is both Lord and Saviour; he is the King of this New Creation, which has always been the plan revealed in the Scriptures. This King expects His people to do kingdom work, and kingdom work would look like evangelism. It would also look like church membership, serving one another, and keeping my eyes on this Lord and King while working out my love for His people through the church,” Alpha Agape said at the end of his Friends of CERC interview on the 1st of December, 2019.
The face-to-face interview had been conducted in the warmth of his cream-coloured living room in their home in USJ, Subang Jaya, exactly thirty days before the first COVID case was reported from Wuhan on 31December 2019.
Now that Malaysia has crossed a first-time threshold of more than 15,000 daily COVID cases in July 2021, and the case count may continue climbing in spite of the government’s labours to vaccinate Malaysians as quickly as possible, physical church gatherings have become to most of us a vague sensory recollection of standing beside one another, singing together and focusing on the sermon together as a church.
CERC families are going through roller-coasters in their own ways from the seclusion of the pandemic, so we caught up with Alpha and his wife, Esther, on Zoom to talk about family life during the bouts of Movement Control Orders (MCOs), pursuing Christian education at home in spite of the lockdown and how their spiritual lives have been affected by the COVID crisis.
It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon; Keziah’s online classes are over and the air is hot and heavy. Toddler Sophie is down for a nap, but Keziah is taking “forever” to finish her lunch. Her homework is still undone. The baby, Alethea, is gurgling and then breaks out into caterwauling. Little Sophie wakes up and she trundles out of the bedroom and down the stairs, looking for Mommy, bleary-eyed and anxious and then, distracted, begins to disturb Keziah. The girls begin to squabble, and Keziah starts to whine.
“Mommy, Sophie is disturbing me! She’s writing on my book!”
The baby continues her high-pitched yowling.
It’s more than one woman can take on a tiring Wednesday afternoon. Esther feels her temples begin to pulse hard, drum-drumming behind her skull, and her blood pressure climbs rapidly. Alpha is back at the computer, in his office, working, and Esther has no choice but to handle the familiar bedlam again without exploding.
“Because I spend most of the time with them, I have to do most of the disciplining, I have to deal with their whining and arguments, so I try to use that to teach them about God and why it’s wrong to do certain things. Those are my opportunities although it’s very tiring, and I look like the one who is always angry – not the fun one – because I always have to tell them, this is wrong, that is wrong. But I use these opportunities to teach them about sin,” Esther says.
“The kids are always blaming each other, especially Keziah, which irritates me because she leaves what she is supposed to be doing, like her homework or her lunch, and forgets it when she’s so busy complaining about the other two.”
“Before the MCO I’d send Keziah to kindergarten and head off to work. Then, at about noon, I’d pick up Keziah from kindergarten and send her home. On some days we would all have lunch together, then I would go back to work in Monash and come home about 6, 6.30p.m.,” Alpha chipped in. “But now that routine is not there, it can get quite chaotic in the morning during MCO. Thankfully, things begin to calm down for a bit (but not always) at noon because Keziah finishes her classes for the day. We don’t have to rush her for the next class, and Keziah can help look after Ally, so that’s an extra pair of hands.”
“But she takes forever to finish lunch so by 2 o’ clock, I start to scream, Keziah, finish up, finish, finish!” laughs Esther.
It had been rough for the family to adjust to the rhythm of the lockdown, especially with the children’s schooling moving online. Kindergartens had initially been clueless as to how to manage this new necessary mode of teaching and learning, and parents and teachers alike had to find their footing with the online software at hand.
“At the start of the MCO, Keziah was new to her school and she wasn’t very familiar with her teachers. It was very difficult because I had to sit down with her, throughout. I couldn’t even move from the room; she had to see my face at all times! It was also scary for her because it was in a language she could not understand like Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese, and it was frustrating for me because I also couldn’t understand Chinese and when she had homework, we couldn’t do it,” Esther shared. “So, there were online classes, a toddler and a baby.” Her tone of voice belied the stress she felt, recalling the challenges of being a present and involved mother for all three children at the time of transition to the new norm with the lockdown.
The early stages of the schools getting used to online lessons had involved the most basic use of technology, which at the time, had been Whatsapp video calls for most of the kindergarten teachers. “It was so frustrating to encourage Keziah to get used to school,” Alpha repeated. Keziah had taken a good eight months to get used to online classes, but towards the end of the year, both Alpha and Esther had decided to take her off school for two months.
“Ya, I couldn’t take the stress anymore, because she couldn’t really concentrate, and she wasn’t learning, so I decided, Ah, I teach you myself lah,” said Esther, shaking her head, her Sarawakian accent coming out strong.
“This year, she went back to the same school, so in January, they went to physical school, then a few months later it was online again, this time with Zoom, which was much better. She had already gotten familiar with teachers and friends. So, she can now log in without having me there. And she locks her room now because – Sophie, this girl, she likes to go into her room and peep, when they play music and such – so now I have to say to Keziah, “You don’t lock your room, ah!” Esther added.
While the lockdown had triggered high levels of tension for the parents, the young children had a limited understanding of the changes happening, in spite of explanations. “I don’t think they’re scared, more frustrated that they can’t go out to eat in their favourite green noodle (Face-to-Face) and black noodle (Go Noodle) shops,” said Alpha, half-joking, when asked if the girls knew about the pandemic.
As the conversation went on, it became clearer that a great deal, if not all, of family life in the Agape household seemed to be about discipling the children and nurturing in them a love for the gospel and God’s people, whether or not lockdown was happening. This goal appeared unchanged by the plague that was rocking the world.
From a young age, Alpha’s parents, who were Christians, had fostered in the family a strong commitment to attending church gatherings, bible studies and prayer meetings, which had impressed upon him firsthand the importance of church. However, in his own family life, Alpha concedes that he finds it a challenge to stay consistent with family routines designed to teach the children a greater love for God’s Word and the gospel.
“In theory, our plan was to read a book or a chapter of a book, either The-ology or God’s Big Picture, and to have a short discussion before bedtime, but then, I end up sleeping because it’s so tiring, and it’s so comfortable,” Alpha said, pausing to think.
“Now, we’re going through The Oology.”
Alpha emphasized on having good resources – children’s books like The Big Picture Story Bible, The Biggest Story: How the Snake Crusher Brings Us Back to the Garden and The Garden, The Curtain and The Cross – to spark in-depth discussions with the kids.
“The books we read with them gives us a good (never ending) source of questions to discuss and serve as reminders to them when we need to discipline them or when they throw a fit, which is every hour -”
“Every minute,” Esther chimes in forcefully.
“Every minute,” Alpha corrects himself. “So, it’s just making use of every opportunity when it comes by although we wish we could do more reading.”
Much of the Christian education that the Agapes strive for in their home involves getting the children to think through what they read in the bible and to work out what that means practically, which is in line with CERC’s core DNA as the gathered people of God. That is, people of the Word upholding the integrity, centrality, and authority of the gospel, and ensuring that God’s people live in conformity to Christ’s Word – maintaining both gospel orthodoxy and orthopraxy. As Jan, Head Editor of CERC News, added during the conversation, “Christian education is basically the reality that when we’re raising a family, it’s not just about teaching the kids math, science, language, etc but basically incorporating God in everything or rather, everything revolves around God. So, when Christians think of education, they don’t see it as separate from the reality of God.” In other words, Christians should educate their children on living in conformity to Christ with gospel discernment every day.
“The girls are starting to get a sense that we need to build the church. It’s not very clear yet for them but they see that the things which we do are done with, and for, the church.”
From this perspective, all kinds of opportunities arise from the ordinary day-to-day to communicate to young children the complex nuances of Christian doctrine and to build a deeper understanding of biblical truths in them.
Alpha relayed one such instance. “When I was growing up, I didn’t understand how the various children stories fit into a coherent story of God’s big plan and those details (when I got it) made me appreciate what Christ has done for us.”
“Let me give you an example, we visited Zoo Negara awhile back. The kids were amazed to see the many animals on display, but we also met with a very distinct smell of animal urine and feces (and probably other combinations too!). We took the opportunity to talk about Jesus’ birth in a manger – and would they like to be born and welcomed in a place like that. That sparked quite an animated discussion with Keziah and Sophia – they could not accept why a king would be born in a manger and not even a clean room. I remember them saying, “What?! A king should be born in a palace, not a smelly place like a manger!”
This was so that the girls could have a proper understanding of the Servant-King who ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness (Phil 2:7).’ It was important for them to grasp the right understanding of the theology of the Cross being antithetical to a worldly understanding of glory.
Esther gave another example, an occasion presented by the Sunday School lesson the week before on the topic, Seeing Jesus Clearly. Thinking through the lesson with the girls, Esther had asked Keziah and Sophia, “How do you see Jesus clearly?”
Sophia answered, “You need glasses,” because the craft as a visual aid had been eyeglasses.
Watch the lesson and do the craft together with your kids here!
“Keziah said (she’s 6 years old) you need to read Scripture to know God, and to know God, you need to know Jesus. Talking points from Sunday School (SS) – craft, lessons, even songs – are a great help. For example songs like Totally God, Totally Man (Sovereign Grace Kids) and Isaiah 53:6: Baa Baa Doo Baa Baa (Colin Buchanan). These help kids visualize and verbalize big concepts in a way that parents can use in their conversations with kids,” said Alpha.
“Another time they were learning about the [parable of] the weed and the wheat. Keziah had a bad dream after watching the SS video and associated a cartoon villain (from another cartoon) with the weed (A Weed Villain). The dream was scary because she recognized that the weed were God’s enemies and that what awaited them was this fire which would burn them up. The scary thing to her was that there were weeds among the wheat – and that one had a black heart. She drew the same association – ‘scary-looking’ – between the weeds and the person who planted the weeds. So, I used that example to say, Look at Ally, she’s cute but it doesn’t mean she’s not evil. Even cute things can have a black heart. Keziah said, I want to have a red heart (using previous lesson associations between red and black heart to connote a changed heart and a sinful and hard heart),” Esther added.
Alpha explained that children “absorb a lot just by observing,” highlighting the importance of building family life around church life. “The girls are starting to get a sense on how we organize our lives around church. It’s not very clear yet for them but they see that the things which we do are done with, and for the church. For example, sometimes, the children see us cooking meals for other people in church and they don’t get to eat it. So that teaches them to have a greater sense of the church’s importance.”
“For example, Sunday is a long day so they know certain things can be done, and they ask, ‘Why do we need to listen (to the sermon)?’ Then there’s Growth Group (GG) on Thursdays for me, Esther’s Tuesday GG, and church meetings in between… they’re starting to know people’s names and roles. When observing Ken leading Alpha’s GG and Pastor Robin on the pulpit, they ask questions like, ‘Is Uncle Ken your teacher? Is Pastor Robin your teacher? Do you call them ‘teacher’? Why don’t you call them ‘teacher’?’”
Alpha also expressed gratitude for CERC’s Sunday School ministry, mentioning that parents may sometimes underestimate the power of Sunday School lessons to communicate deep gospel truths to young children. “If we look at the material and think through the week’s lesson, there’s a lot of things that we can follow through as parents.”
CERC has been working through a series entitled God’s Story for most of the pandemic, with the goal of the church to have a better grasp of biblical theology and God’s revelation from Genesis up to Revelation. The Agapes had some thoughtful responses to the series as well, in spite of the obvious toll of parenting through MCO.
“Learning from the God’s Story series taught me so much about who God is, who I am called to be, and it’s not just about God redeeming a people for himself. Now, in Ephesians, I see that this new hope, this new beginning, is this one new man created in Christ Jesus for good works. I’ve never really seen how the bible connects in such a way; it’s really amazing, how God’s plan is unfolding throughout the bible,” Esther said.
Alpha echoed her sentiments.
“This series showed me how much I’ve taken the bible for granted. Yes, I know the stories, I know the creation account, I know the story of Noah but I’ve never connected them. The bible is much more intricate. Or rather, we’ve oversimplified the bible without understanding biblical theology properly. It’s just very colourful and God’s story builds up to a climax, as opposed to a very flat colourless landscape. Now that we’re in the 21st century, we know why the church is the centre of creation. It’s really amazing.”
We segued into discussing Alpha’s current role as Head of Department (HOD) of Food Catering Service, a department responsible for serving church breakfasts and dinners, as well as Geddit meals.
Alpha joked that Esther was his biggest critic when it came to matters of cooking. “She said, ‘Do they know what they are asking? You’re going to serve burnt food to them!’” Alpha said.
“Now, got ikan bakar and burnt cheesecake, can lah,” Esther responded, smiling widely.
Alpha turned serious when asked how he felt about his HOD role.
“I think in the last interview [in 2019], I was just a helping hand in the kitchen, and I didn’t see lots of things then. Now that I’m in this role and with the recent three people who left us (CERC) being from Food Catering Services, that has given me a lot to think about and reflect on. During our evangelism events like Geddit – we would easily produce food for 400 pax in a day (over lunch and dinner). When I think about it, the majority of us in the department cook for an average of 3 pax maybe 3-4 times a week. But as a department within the church, we see the need for us to step up and be able to serve top-tier food for our guests (who may very well be stepping into a church for the first time). Good food always helps people feel at ease so that they can hear and think through the highlight of the event – the presentation/preaching/ teaching of the gospel. We do our best to try and ensure that the food we have is also thematically tied to the talk, to spark further thoughts and conversations. Having a department that looks after and prepares food just makes so much sense. How else would we be able to implement this level of customization and control, not to mention at a fraction of the cost? Honestly, when I first heard there was a kitchen in church, I imagined in my head a two-gas burner stove – I had no idea that it was almost an industrial kitchen. Yes, things can get hot and teary in the kitchen when we need to chop hundreds of onions or purchase 40 kilograms of chicken (and we do), but CERC is unique that way – it’s so we can proclaim the manifold wisdom of God found in His Beloved Son Jesus Christ. I guess my job as HOD is to remind my people why they’re working, why you need to chop 300 onions… and exemplify it to them…” He trailed off, thinking, then picked up his train of thought.
“- for example, why we should probably still think about providing catering for our livestream team. Of course, they can order Grab food, but if they’re our fellow brothers… they are serving and sacrificing their time so that the Word can be made known. Why can’t we, a fellow member of this body in Christ, go out of our way so we can feed them and show them that we as a church are thankful for the crew’s service to God and His church? It’s not about ordering a Grab to solve the problem, but it’s about us exercising and demonstrating this love for each other. Now in MCO we no longer see the church being gathered, so this is a good reminder that we are the gathered people of God, we are the people of God – ” he emphasizes forcefully, “- and we are to care for this body.
Esther shared that for her to hold on to this similar CERC DNA of living consistently with her Christian identity, the preaching of the Word played a significant role. “By feeding on the Word preached each week, it helps me see things in God’s perspective and every week I get built up and I get reminded of who I’m called to be,” she said.
While MCO has not appeared to dilute the conviction the Agapes have on the pressing need to keep building CERC, both admitted that MCO introduced a few personal struggles.
“I think what I struggle with now is being able to take notes during sermons,” said Alpha. For Alpha, taking the Word seriously means being on the same page as the pulpit and the rest of the church, and that means, taking note-taking seriously.
“Because everyone is at home now, and Sunday School is before sermon, it’s one long race – getting the kids ready, sitting them down, and then getting ready for sermon. Then, we get maybe 45 minutes into the sermon before somebody is hungry – ‘Mummy, Daddy, I’m hungry, I want to eat this, I want to eat that’ – so we go get them something, and yes, we can pause and come back but there’s an interruption to the flow of thoughts. Having headphones is helpful as it allows us to be mobile and still follow the sermon but it’s at the cost of our notes.”
For Esther, what she has struggled with is reaching out to non-Christians during MCO. “Because of MCO, we can’t meet people. It’s important to build up relationships and it’s hard to do that over Whatsapp and calls, and I can’t really do it during the day, only at night (when everyone is asleep). You can’t get the conversation going, so you can’t really get to know that person and how you can physically help. It’s easy to send the sermon link, but they’ll just say okay or maybe they don’t reply. If you build that relationship with them and bring them physically to church, that’s a different thing.”
The Agapes both attribute their conviction and know-how of living out the gospel steadfastly to the “good and dedicated teaching from the pulpit and our Growth Groups. As we meditate and reflect on what we learn, we see Scripture clearly. All the more so after God’s Story,” Alpha said.
With Malaysia’s daily vaccinations numbers hitting record highs of 450,000 shots a day, topping other major Asean countries including Thailand, Philippines and Myanmar, Malaysians remain hopeful of a return to normalcy, although increasingly dangerous COVID variants may begin to circulate among the community. Nonetheless, in the face of this threat, far from falling apart, it appears that the Agapes are holding on strong to the gospel and persevering through the pandemic with a concentrated focus on kingdom and church-building, thanks to a solid foundation in the Word, rather than allowing themselves to become dissipate spiritually.