Church Testimony: The Transcript

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5 months from the last time I’ve been given the privilege to speak before an audience and so much has happened ever since. Life has a way of tossing you into the least expected places in the most surprising of twists and turn – today, in a much more humble setting, before an audience of 30, I shared my favourite story yet

“Church, today I am privileged and excited to be sharing my story with you – this is a story of how I grew up and how I ended up in Sydney, a story about who I thought I was and who I’ve found I am. This is a story that God has woven into a masterpiece through my life.

God has been working in and through me before I even came to recognise Him.

For many years in my life, I have been an active volunteer and it is something many people remember or recognise me for. When I was 16, I rallied my class to sponsor a child together in Uganda; by 17, I developed a social emotional learning curriculum that was adopted by a primary school in Singapore; at 18, I lead a team of adults mostly in their mid-twenties to Vietnam’s Ministry of Environment to share a waste management plan we had developed; at 19 (last year), I started a social enterprise with my sister called Strong Mind Fit Body. We bring elderly Singaporeans together with youth volunteers for strength training exercises.

I didn’t know then, but God had been working through me and using me in countless ways to bring blessing and light to the darkness of so many.

 God came at a time I was exhausted and hopeless.

In my family, my parents are Buddhist and my siblings and I grew up mostly regarding ourselves as ‘non-religious’. (I have an older sister and a younger brother) The rest of my extended family on my mother’s side are Christian, but because of past conflicts and other negative experiences for my parents, we pretty much grew up being taught to reject Christianity.

The teaching was, “There are many things in life we cannot explain and there might be a higher being. But this higher being is not here to love you but to punish you – so be careful, do good and you’ll receive goodness but do anything bad and be condemned.” If you understand the ‘karma’, the idea is that “if you want anything you must deserve it and to deserve it you must work for and earn it”. How absolutely wrong we were.

Growing up believing that, even love had to be earned.

In the days I started volunteering, I was schooling in one of the most prestigious institutions in Singapore. Every day, we were reminded of ‘noblesse oblige’, which is Latin for “the privileged have an obligation of serving”. The label that enslaved me was ‘privileged’. The more social needs I saw volunteering, the more I was reaffirmed that nothing in this life that I experience and enjoy are deserved – not this privilege of literacy when millions of children don’t have a pencil to hold, not this privilege of safety when so many live on the streets in fear, not this privilege of a proper meal when millions struggle to even be fed. With no concept of God’s grace, the only logical response to this horrific realization was to be constantly in service to others and to deny myself any more of it if I could help it.

Closer friends knew how terrible I became at taking care of myself – my days would be packed from even before the sky awakens to prepare for our workout sessions all over Singapore, meetings with volunteers to whom I became a personal counsellor, travelling to schools to do mentorships, conducting volunteer trainings, facilitating camps and leadership trainings, speaking at forums and conferences.

Deep within on days I was tired of this life, there would be a voice that says “Who do you think you are? Who do you think you are that you deserve anything more? Who are you that you deserve a better meal? Or a decent sleep?” What I didn’t know then, was that God was in all of it. All the times I held the hands of our elderly participants at workout sessions or gave hugs to those who cried, He was holding my hands and embracing me in His warmth. All the times I missed meals and someone would think of surprising me with a proper meal (that was not fast food), all the times my volunteers surprised me with handwritten notes and affirming messages, all the times random strangers came up to me wanting to pray for me and all the times He let people walk in on me crying from exasperation; I was clueless and faithless, yet He was knowing and faithful.

Just as God chose me; for all of my life, I want to choose Him.

One of the first things I did after coming to Sydney, was to enrol myself into a self-compassion course. I had come to a rock bottom where I almost had no reason at all to be loving or taking care of myself. The voice that said, “You deserve nothing” had grown too loud to be silenced. It was then that a coursemate invited me to a church camp over the Easter Break. The first sermon that broke me was about 1 Peter 2:9. It says “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  

The name of the camp was ‘Chosen’ and the pastor talked about how each of us were God’s chosen people. Not because of what we did or will do or can do, but because He loved us so. We did nothing to be worthy of being chosen but we were and because there is no condition for this unconditional love, there is also no reason the love will be lost. We are chosen, and God isn’t going to withdraw this choice ever – the response we get to make lies only in ‘accept’ or ‘ignore’. There is no option to ‘reject’, for it wouldn’t be withdrawn.

In this world that we live in, everything is transactional – in every relationship and every person, it is about what you can give me and what I can give in return. All my life, this is the only type of relationship I’ve recognised; I can’t even count the number of strangers I’ve spoken to, conversations I’ve had, relationships I’ve been in that came from the intention of putting forth a request – “Could you help us with this?”, “Could we meet you to ask you questions about this?”, “Can you be the one to do this?”

When God came to me, He came, too, with a request. But His was not about what I could give Him or what He wanted from me; His was an invitation to receive. To receive something so so precious, something unimaginable. He didn’t come to count tabs or take back what I did not deserve, He didn’t come to punish or to reprimand. He came first to love and embrace and to serve.

My entire self and life is God’s.

I am an avid reader, I absolutely love reading books and writing my own prose. In a recent read, Desiring God by John Piper, the author proposes that we each live a life pinning our hopes on a single treasure – the ‘treasure’ might be family, career ambitions, grades, that ‘comfortable life’ or that holiday dream. We pin our hopes on those treasures such that our lives would be a waste if the value of those treasures were not real.

I once settled for treasures that were going to fail me eventually, treasures that would truly have made my life a ‘waste’. It is by God’s grace alone, in His giving me what I do not deserve, that I live and breathe in His truth. Every day now, I want to live a life that would be a waste if Jesus didn’t love me, if the resurrection were not true or if God were not real. So I know for sure, it will not be a waste for there is no more certain truth I know than the fact that Jesus loves me more than I can even imagine, the resurrection is the most important historical fact in humanity’s past and God’s presence is undeniable – for all of my days, I will pin my hopes on the One who will continue to pick me up no matter how many times I let Him down, who will continue to forgive me no matter how many times I fall short.

In every moment that He breathes life into me, I wish only to bask in His relentless love and bring Him glory in all that I do. Jesus freed me from the burden of my sins and the weight of the chains upon my soul; I have decided to follow Him with all my heart, all my mind and all my soul. And I’m never turning back. Thank you Lord, for bringing to me a place of childlike faith and untradeable joy.”

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I Am Deeply In Love: The Pursuit

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Have you ever looked at the birds in the sky and wondered where they are headed? Or at everyone’s hastened footsteps through the train doors and wondered where they are going? To each their own story, they say. I sometimes watch the birds and these people, making up stories for them in my head, imagining possibilities. How about you – have you ever looked at your own footsteps in life and asked yourself where you are headed? Where are you going? What is your story? They say life is a journey but how often do we ask what is the destination? The destination, not the end-point (which biologically speaking, is death). Where are we headed with our incessant busyness? Where are we going with all this accumulated wealth and experience? This piece is the last in a series of three (series begins here and follows here), telling the story of how I’ve found a purpose so true and worthwhile that I am never turning back. In this one, allow me to propose that life is a pursuit of happiness and I plead with you for patience to embark on your own journey, finding your destination. It will be worthwhile, I promise.

We are constantly in pursuit of happiness. Physically, I find myself in pursuit of buses and trains most often because of unreliable transport frequencies and commonplace delays (welcome to Sydney). Checking the transport timings on phone applications, a momentary sigh is followed by a dash to the stop or platform; between which, the input of information is followed by realising that forfeiting the pursuit would lead to undesirable consequences (i.e. an extraordinarily long wait out in the cold for the next bus or train). Hence, the pursuit. The metaphorical pursuits of our lives are no different – whether we consciously map out the information-belief-action processes of our minds, they happen over and over again to manifest in our everyday decisions. There are narratives we are building our lives upon, oftentimes without even noticing and we all seek happiness in our pursuits albeit in different ways. Follow me, let’s uncover an inkling of what your pursuit is about:

Information is all around us. There are sights and scenes that we witness every single day; from the birds in the sky to the interactions between people, everything is input. Mindfulness is a practice that trains ourselves to be present right here and right now, to be ever aware of the input that you receive. Take time to notice your breaths and ask questions about what you see, what you smell, what you hear, how you feel and what you are thinking about. Start there.

Beliefs shape how we make sense of the information. This is why even as we all seek happiness, our very ideas of happiness and what that means take such different forms. The same way amber-tinted glasses make everything look yellow, belief-tinted minds affect how information looks to us. Beliefs could surround the value of grades, money, that perfect career’, ‘that person I want to be’. Beliefs are the absolute statements we make as the springboard for our decisions, they sound like, “All people have goodness in them.”, “It is not right to be selfish.”, “Everyone can have their own moral compass.”. What is important to you in your interaction with family and friends? What absolute statements shape your relationships with money, time, grades?

Actions are the physical manifestations in every moment. Your incredible brain makes connections between information and beliefs, translating them into actions in a single instant over and over again every day. As you decide how to spend every moment of your life, the mechanics of your brain crank away at that. Consider the small actions – What do I do with the first waking moments of my day and the last? How did I spend my morning, afternoon and night? How do I walk, talk and breathe? And notice how the massive thing we call life is but a chain of many small moments as these; and who we are is the masterpiece of these beliefs and actions put together.

Who are you? Who are you, that doesn’t change even as the people around you do and as the circumstances that surround you shape shift? Who are you, when nobody else is looking and where no institutional or financial pressures bind you? Who are you and what are you pursuing?

Our pursuits sometimes detract from the destination we claim to be headed towards. Too often, the lights of our city distract us from the truly glorious and beautiful treasures of this life. We claim to pursue happiness, joy even; yet we chase after all the mistaken things. The numbers distract us from the true worth and the small talk distract us from the quiet wisdom of this world. Herein lies the problem – our pursuits are misled if we frame our destinations mistakenly. The books or music, experiences and intimacy in which we thought value was located will betray us if we trust them. The ‘good person’ I had hoped to be and the joy of service I had found pleasure in were beautiful, no doubt, but they were not the destination. The truly worthy cause was not in them; it only came through them. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past, the dreams of our distant future – are images of what we really desire, but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower you have not found, the echo of a tune you have not heard, news from a country you have never yet visited.

I have spent a large part of my life striving to pursue what I thought to be good through the creations of the Creator rather than the Creator Himself, I have settled for the bite-sized joy from resonating in His image of goodness instead of pursuing the abundance of pleasure and joy that He promises. I am convinced in a way that I have never been before, that in our searching high and low and in our pursuing far and wide, what our hearts truly desire is the glory of God and nothing can replace Him in the God-shaped desires of our hearts. For all the days of my life, I want nothing else but to seek the Kingdom of God with my arms raised high in praise of the one who brings us life and hope. This is how it is with God’s love: when you let go of the scent and pursue the flower, let go of the echo and pursue the tune, let go of this world or its lights and pursue the One who shines the most brightly; you realise that all your life, you’ve been settling for less.

I end with the words of C.S. Lewis from his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospel, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

You might not yet know Jesus Christ or you might not even believe there is a God, much less a Christian God. You might feel like you don’t need or want there to be a God. You might even think the entire debate of religion to be irrelevant. I was there before – then, I had a life I thought was satisfying enough and I was a person good enough. I don’t know where you are in your journey and what narrative you currently subscribe to, but wherever you are, I encourage you to own that story – be first conscious of the narrative that you’re allowing to dictate your life and resolve to embark on that search for truth. Not ‘truth’ as in, ‘everyone is entitled to their own versions of’ kind of ‘truth’ (because that contradicts the very definition of ‘truth’), but ‘truth’ as in the one that remain constant before we existed and long after we’ve come to pass. Truth, as it is meant to be. Settle for nothing less than that. After all, can a life that is not lived in pursuit of truth ever bring us true happiness? Would we rather continue to lie to ourselves?

God receives you. Whoever you are, wherever you are and whatever your motives: His arms are open wide to embrace you as His child, ready to welcome you home at your single ‘yes’. It doesn’t have to be resounding or certain or assertive, my journey started from the time I whispered ‘yes’.

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Long ago the Lord said to Israel: “I have loved you, my people with an everlasting love. With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself.” [Jeremiah 31:3, NLT]