Wednesday, October 02, 2013

A Confession

Today has not been a good day.

I feel incapacitated. Even after narrowing down my large list of work-related to-dos into just 1 important thing, I can barely even keep track of that one thing in my mind. I remember it in one moment, and forget it 5 minutes later. I just want to curl up in a corner and hibernate, pretending the things around me aren't real like the proverbial ostrich sticking its head in the ground.

I feel alone. Like there's no one really to talk to. Everyone's busy, everyone's off somewhere, everyone's doing stuff they're supposed to be doing. I started the day with an email from a superior that got me ticked off, which in turn made me feel like he's against me. He probably isn't, but I hear his comments in an antagonistic tone in my head and I can't shake it off. Even my dear fiancee's simple pointing out of a grammatical error in my Facebook status makes me feel like I'm being corrected, and I get ticked off. And now she's probably annoyed or at least doesn't want to talk to me so much lest she ticks me off again or I respond to her in unexpected anger.

Just what I need - even fewer people to talk to.

This doesn't feel real. The future looks bright, but the short remaining path to the end of the tunnel looks far too steep to climb. What good is seeing the light at the end of the tunnel when you don't think you can get that far? Most days I look at it and think, "I have no idea how I'll make it up there, but somehow I will." I tell myself, "God is in control. Don't worry about figuring out how to get there if you can't figure it out." Or in the words of a good friend, "this too shall pass."

But today, I look at that light and what's before me, and I feel overwhelmed. And when I'm overwhelmed, I shut down. I mentally retreat, inclined to consider all things in my world as if they are a dream and struggling to remember that no, they are real, I cannot actually ignore them without expecting consequences. But it's a struggle to remember it, like trying to run up a slide and grasping at the smooth walls. Sometimes in the day I stop struggling and let myself space out, but never for long because the spacing out is accompanied by a sense of dread that every moment I remain spaced out is a moment when I get one step closer to the end of that tunnel and haven't made any progress in climbing it, which just makes the pathway ahead steeper and more impossible.

None of this perspective is biblical. I have every reason in Christ to hope. God is in control of my life. In Christ I can do all things. His blood covers me and even if I 'fail' it doesn't matter that much anyway. But at the moment those are just far away thoughts. I am unable to find a way to make them feel real, in the same way a blind man would (probably, I imagine) struggle to believe in the sun while he's in a shadow. I don't know what to do to step into the light, to make things better - all I can do is let time slowly tick by, moving forward in the darkness one step at a time, and see what happens.

And in this moment, as I'm about to post this, I get a call. From a property agent, no less. We're not friends or anything, we've only met once before. But he's helpful and surprisingly understanding of my discomfort with the one property that he showed us before. After putting down the phone I feel slightly better. Not a lot better, but just a bit. Perhaps that was a small random ray of light God decided to shine into my shadow for now.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sinfulness and God's Goodness

I just had a random thought in the shower - you can only see how sinful you are when you realise just how good God is.

I suspect that there many folks out there who don't believe in Christ, who aren't particularly rebellious against God or anything - they're just honestly and simply unconvinced by Christianity's assertion that all men are sinful, simply because they don't really feel like they're that bad, compared to everyone else. And in fact, many of them are right. Many of them are good people, loving husbands and wives, caring about others and so on (they are, after all, also originally made in the image of God). I have met many non-Christians who seem to exhibit far more Godly traits than I do. So in the world view of these folks, the argument that they are wretchedly sinful before a holy God just doesn't click.

Even for the Christian, we seldom live with an awareness of just how sinful we are/were/would be without Christ. I mean, we're not Christ-like now but we're not that bad are we? And yet something within us is aware that if God is spending our whole lives perfecting us into Christ-likeness, surely we're not really that close yet.

But get one glimpse at how good God is, and we immediate realise, WHOA! He is SO GOOD, there is NO HO WAY I am anywhere near that. Not even on my best of days. Now all this bowing down to exalt Him and I-am-really-utterly-sinful-before-Him makes sense - for how can a little torchlight, however faithfully he shines his little light, not see his own lack in the face of the huge glorious sun? Straightaway with just a glance at this King, not only can we see just how far we really are from Him, but we are also given all the reason in the world to desire to be one with Him.

And we know, because He is the author and finisher of our faith, that we will be. He is just that good.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Upgraded my bike's roller wheels!

Ok the default roller (Eazy) wheels on my brompton may be good but they have 2 problems:

1) they don't leave much ground clearance for swapped out handlebars with front extensions like mine (when the bike is folded and the handlebars are near the ground), and

2) they're kinda small so they don't roll great on my office carpet.

But, the Brompton folks were very smart in designing it cuz the rear triangle can be very costly to fix if it gets bent, so they designed the roller wheels to be more fragile than the rear triangle. Just in case the bike is dropped when folded, you can count on the wheels to break before the frame bends. Kind of like a crumple zone. The wheels are cheap and replaceable anyway.

But I figured I could use the extra clearance and rollability, AND the bigger risk of any kind of frame damage is probably at the end of the triangle closer to the seat. So why not keep THOSE wheels and swap out the ones right at the end of the bike? That way when the bike is folded I can "tow" it by turning the seat backwards and using it as a handle (like I always do when I get to the office) and the larger wheels wld be the one rolling on my office carpet. Perfect.

So that's what I did. Very happy now. Many thanks to my friend Nick who gave me his unwanted roller blade wheels which I think look awesome on my bike. :)

Also, most sites (like this one, which is an awesome cycling blog btw: have suggested that you need longer screws than the ones the bike comes with though in order to keep the bungee cords tied on. But I discovered you don't! Because you can loop the end of the bungee, which used to be attached to the same screw as the roller wheel, around the rack instead. If you do that the screw is actually the perfect length to attach a roller blade wheel. Awesome! :D

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Noo Yeah

I've never been one to celebrate New Year's much.

Or any particular recurring date, for that matter.  New Year's just seems like an arbitrary change in the calendar, a practical necessity in order to support our way of enumerating our time in some form.  In reality, 31 Dec - 1 Jan has as much of a difference as 23 - 24 Jun.  (Even worse, for every one of the 12 years I was in school in Singapore, New Year's meant the end of school holidays and the start of a new school year with new textbooks, teachers, expectations and exams.  Not exactly a moment worth popping the champagne over.)

The same goes (believe it or not) with things like birthdays.  Celebrating them just doesn't come naturally to me.  Mind you, I do make it a point to celebrate them as heartily as I can because I believe those I care about should feel special and celebrated at least once a year, although I feel this is largely also due to my inability to make them feel special every day.  But giving birthday gifts and remembering birthdays only comes with a fair bit of deliberate effort for me - a dear friend's birthday can go by forgotten and I wouldn't feel much is amiss, except to feel a little bad I forgot because of what I perceive to be that friend's expectations.  And strangely enough, although my parents celebrated my birthday every year without fail, I never knew when their birthdays were until my teens.  In fact there were a couple of times when my extended family would celebrate my dad's birthday over lunch at my grandfather's and I didn't know it was his birthday until the lunch itself.  (Actually I still don't remember my mum's birthday... apparently it changes every year because hers goes by the lunar calendar.)

If your birthday passed recently and I didn't say anything, I apologise.  :P

Back to the season... The thing I appreciate most about New Year's, really, is that it seems to be the only time of the year (barring the occurrence of huge tragedies or calamities) that other people, i.e. people around me (family, friends, colleagues and total strangers that form the society at large that I'm a part of), stop to think, to contemplate, to consider, to do a little more than just react.  It's the one time in the year when you're 'allowed' by society to not just be focused on being productive and getting by, when you're actually expected to reflect a little.

I can't say that for any other part of the year, but how I wish we would do that more often.

Not that we would celebrate New Year's more frequently than New Year happens, but that I would more frequently be surrounded by friends, colleagues, people I know or only vaguely hear of via Facebook, contemplating and reflecting.  Seeking to be somewhat introspective, looking for inspiration.  How I wish the occasional catch up dinners with friends would consist of more than "so how's work?", "what else have you been up to besides work?" and, of course, the topic that everyone goes to when they can't think of what else to talk about - "have you got any holidays planned?"  I'd love to talk to someone about how or where they feel their life is heading, what passions they have that they haven't found a way to explore, or the questions they ponder to themselves or to God (however random).

A friend of mine told me he and his wife take quarterly retreats.  1 day every quarter (which is a lot more frequent than it sounds!) they both take leave, go on a quiet retreat, spend alone time reflecting, journalling, praying, walking etc with God, and then come together to share, pray some more and spend some quality time together with Him.  Sounds to me almost like a mini New Year's, 4 times a year.

Sure beats once a year.  I'd certainly like to be able to do something like that, although I'm not sure yet how I'd do it.  Setting aside a fixed day to contemplate things just sounds weird to me - I don't even have regular quiet times 'cuz I feel like if I have to schedule a meeting time with God it feels fake and overly official.  Still, while I generally engage in relatively frequent introspection as it is, contemplation has different levels, and in order to see things at a different level, one needs a different type of occasion to do so.  It certainly seems like I could use something that straddles the gap between once-a-year and every-day-or-so

Life is rich.  But that richness, it seems to me, is only revealed when we stop to consider and contemplate.  God is best appreciated when we are in a posture and a context suitable for gazing, pondering, staring in awe, and, well, appreciating.  I make no resolutions in the New Year, because I'd soon forget them, and I am clueless about my life anyway compared to God - I barely even know what needs I have, let alone how to fulfill them.  But perhaps one New Year's wish worth making is that I, and many others around me, would get better at doing this New Year's stuff more frequently, year-round, such that each New Year would really be what I think it is, i.e. an arbitrary tick of the clock - but a tick between 2 years already filled with frequent occasions of wonder, awe, insight and worship.

In any case, Happy New Year's!  May your 2013 be marked with revelations of His faithfulness and steadfast love.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Why I Cycle to Work (sometimes)

In 2010, I came back to Singapore after my university studies in the US. I now had to fulfill my National Service obligations for 2 reasons: 1) I was no longer living overseas, and 2) I was suay (so many of my peers have escaped being called back for NS! Okay I believe God has His purposes in everything, but I've yet to see the purpose in this one). These obligations included needing to pass IPPT (Individual Physical Proficiency Test - a standardised physical fitness test).

I'm not exactly a fat slob, but physical fitness has never been a huge priority of mine either. I know it doesn't sound like a big deal to have to pass your IPPT - just train here and there and pass it lah, what's so hard? Well, I don't work for the SCDF or Army or any other job that requires me to be physically fit. Rather, I spend my entire weekday slogging to fulfill the demands of my job, which necessitates me sitting dormant on a very ergonomic but nonetheless fat inducing office chair for hours a day - and by the time I'm done with that, I'm exhausted, AND the only muscle of mine that's been exercised is in my fingers. Focusing on passing IPPT every year requires a completely different focus, one which I barely can find the energy to keep. It's like having a second employer (one is bad enough!).

So I forced myself to go to the gym, but then I discovered that not only did I absolutely hate running on a treadmill (my weakest IPPT station is the 2.4km run), but I hated the gym itself - it was stinky, boring, and required a huge amount of self-effort to generate very little exercise.

And here is where I had a huge revelation that I think will help anyone who is trying to keep fit:

For most of us, our most limited resource isn't our time or money, it's our willpower.

I read somewhere recently that willpower is a muscle - and like any other muscle, it gets tired. If any solution you have to any problem requires the unending usage of willpower, you WILL fail because your willpower will invariably be exhausted at some point if you don't allow it to be replenished/rested. I decided it was such a huge waste of willpower to drag myself to the gym twice a week only to exercise for 30 mins at a time - and that includes plenty of downtime in between queueing for the treadmill too. Instead, I'd much rather play a sport to exercise, because sports are inherently fun, and fun is the best antidote to limited willpower. It's a lot easier to get myself to play 1 hr of badminton than to run on a treadmill like a hamster for 15 mins.

Seriously, think about it. Most of us spend our lives criticising ourselves, wishing we would do more, or spending more time with the family, or be more productive, if only we had more willpower. Most of us think that how we feel about it is irrelevant and immaterial ("I don't like doing this, but that shouldn't matter because it's important and I should just make myself do it.") It's a thought process that, I think, is rooted in not just folly but pride; a desire to be able to say that our self-effort is enough to overcome anything outside of our control, including our own unpredictable feelings.

Instead, may I suggest that it is humility to work with the way God designed us. Figure out what would make the task you need to do more 'doable', whatever that means - less embarrassing, more pleasant, more enjoyable - and then use your willpower to make that change so that you can do what you need to do in a sustainable and more enjoyable manner.

So, in the absence of a regular tennis or badminton game, I started cycling to work a few months ago. Not everyday, and certainly not in tights - like Mr Brown, I believe I do myself and the rest of the world a favour by not wearing tights. I can assure you, it's not just satisfying - it's fun. And it's a lot easier to make myself cycle to work once a week (that's 35 minutes of almost continuous exercise x 2 for a return journey) than it is to make myself do 30 minute gym sessions twice a week. In fact, I function quite sustainably on a minimum of biking once a week but a target of twice. In contrast, when I was using the gym, it was a stretch to get myself to go at all - even though I'd "committed" to going twice a week, it wasn't a commitment that I could realistically keep for more than a few weeks at a time.

Moral of the story: I believe God didn't design willpower as a substitute for desire ("I usually don't feel like doing this, but it's okay, I'll just make myself do it") but as a complement to it ("I usually don't like doing X, so I'm going to change how I approach it so it's easier to make myself do it"). If you have a hard time doing something you know is good for you, try to figure out what you don't like about it and see if you can make it more pleasant for yourself.

More on cycling to work in another post soon. Cycling on the roads isn't as suicidal as you might think.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Response

I posted this on Facebook and received many encouraging comments. It seems that there are at least a couple of people out there who resonate with this. So here I am, sharing this with whoever else would like to read it.

A reply to (which, by the way, is a wonderful blog entry on Singapore; I highly recommend reading it.)

To the outsiders, the visitors, the expats; to those who grew up outside Singapore, have visited or lived in Singapore and have come to love and admire this country for what it is and what it has achieved.

You wonder. You wonder why us Singaporeans are such a complaining, unhappy, ungrateful lot. Why we're so unhappy with things when everything around us is beautiful. We have an effective public transportation system, a safe environment, we're known globally for great math and science education, our economy is booming, we have low unemployment, little systemic poverty, and all this obtained within a single generation.

Thank you. You help us to see what we are. You help us to see the gifts that God has given us, to appreciate our own beauty, to remind us of the good we have. We need that. We really need that.

But to you, I also say, you don't understand. You don't see the emotional struggles we have faced since young. We grew up in a system, a society, that for the most part believed that negative reinforcement and compliance were the most important principles in educating a child. We were educated not to ask questions but to recite ideal answers, and to never think you're good but always doubt your own sense of accomplishment. Consequently, we struggle to know how to make good decisions for ourselves because we've never been encouraged to have faith in our own choices.

We live in a society where individual opinion is often not valued unless it agrees with the norm; where we are taught that if you have authority over something or anyone, your primary obligation is to control, criticise and make sure they don't fall out of line, rather than to guide, encourage and build up. It is a society filled with paranoia that others are against us, rife with criticism of each other's (and our own) behaviour, and sorely devoid of affirmation, appreciation and edification. We are a society that feels lonely because we believe it is preferable to keep quiet than to convey words that build relationships like "I'm sorry," "thank you" or "you did this really well."

Don't let anyone fool you; Singapore is a wonderful place to live; but it is, in general, a challenging place to grow up. Children have little time to play, little space to run around, and few adults around them who actually demonstrate what it means to pursue their dreams, even though all adults tell them that they should choose to do whatever they feel most passionate about. We struggle to accept ourselves, to sleep well, to be dutiful to every family member and to be productive workers. And actually, for the most part, we succeed in all these things; but still we live with the constant, nagging sense that others have already done too much for us and we haven't done enough ourselves.

What's the point? Yes, much about the living environment in Singapore is world class. It's safe, it's clean, and it's generally efficient and fair. So please understand that when we complain about what goes on around us, we are really struggling to express our discontent with what goes on within us. We feel dissatisfied with something within our lives but have never been taught to value what goes on inside us, so therefore it must be something wrong with things outside ourselves - how others treat us, how the government behaves, how society is, or whatever else happens to be in front of our eyes that we can fault. We need to learn that most our external discontent is really a reflection of our sense of self.

This is what we are. We are a people, once (not too long ago) disappointed by a colonial parent and then once again rejected by our own neighbours, that has been marvelous at building up physical infrastructure, but that will still be building its own sense of identity for generations to come.  Because, for the most part, our biggest struggle isn't to put food on the table, but to conquer our self-doubts.

It is only to whatever extent that we honestly, genuinely obtain the revelation of our God-given beauty and worth, that we and our children will truly have a better Singapore to live in.  And when that happens, it won't be because we have finally opened another MRT line or reduced COE price fluctuations, but because we have discovered, finally, that we can believe in who we are.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Hunger is a Gift

I felt/heard God say something interesting to me the other day. It went along the lines of this: "Food is a gift, but the greater gift from Me is hunger."

It's a fascinating thought. Hunger is so natural that we seldom think of it apart from ourselves. Pain, we don't like, so we disassociate ourselves from it and can say, it's unpleasant but it's a gift from God to help us know when we're doing something that harms us physically. Or something like that.

As I meditated on this thought, this is what came to mind:

I pictured God making a bunch of people. Except, I can't quite picture that, so instead I pictured a loving wizard making a bunch of smurfs. He makes every aspect of them, fashions every single bit of each of them. He makes them with the intention, and the eager expectation, of loving them and being with them, and He makes them to be the counterpoint to His love, i.e. He designs them not just for community with each other but to need Him and find their fulfillment in Him. Not in a selfish way, but in a smart design kind of way.

Imagine the group of smurfs, all made to need their creator. Then the wizard gives them life and lets them live and commune and do stuff. He makes himself available to them. He shows them who he is and why they need him. Some of them respond, knowing logically that they need him. But most of them ignore him... because they have no desire. Their emotions are indifferent towards him.

It would break the wizard's heart. But the wizard who does nothing would not only be foolish, he would be cruel - cruel to make the smurfs to need him and be incomplete without him, yet to do nothing to make them want what they need.

That's where desire comes in. It is out of the wizard's love, and his grace, that he places a desire in the smurfs for Him. Slowly, the smurfs begin to realise that they feel different. And they begin to want to be with the wizard, to discover what the wizard is about, and to learn about how he made them and what was his plan for them. And that is where they find themselves complete... not only because they have found what they needed but because their wizard-given desires have been fulfilled by the wizard's very design.

That is a very loose picture of His grace for us. It is out of His grace that He not only makes us to need Him but causes us to want the One we need. To break it down into simpler terms, He made our bodies to need food, and He could have said, "you guys need food, but I'm not going to put any desire in you for it, so that you will seek food purely out of discipline and diligence. If you don't survive and you go hungry, it's your own fault for not being diligent. And if you are diligent, then you will do well."

That sounds like a very familiar kind of perspective, doesn't it? It's a common perspective in Singapore. And maybe in Asia (or East Asia?) in general - we tend to despise the emotional sometimes, as though feelings are a bain that we must put up with, and as though the most sincere acts are those which happen in spite of contrary emotions. Diligence is often prized over desire.

I believe this is an absolutely unbiblical view. Jesus wrote to the church in Ephesus, praising them for their good works (diligence! and obedience!) but saying, they had left their first love for Him, they must go back to their love for Him, and if they don't He will remove the lampstand from them. Their desire for Him meant a lot more - a LOT more - to Him than their faithfulness in doing good things.

Many of us Christians can't help having the mentality I described earlier because we've grown up with it, and that's okay - God accepts us as if we were perfect because we are covered by the blood of Christ. But we do need to realise that this view does not glorify God. That's because God Himself has emotions, and when we despise our emotions because they are emotions, we look down upon a piece of the nature of God. God has emotions... For instance, anger is often seen as an unacceptable emotion in our society, and one that is better left unsaid... but God does get angry and He has no problems with being vocal about it. The Bible also tells us that Christ was willing to sacrifice Himself for the joy set before Him. He had more than the discipline to obey His Father - He had a promise of joy after the sacrifice too. God, in His mighty wisdom, gave Jesus a joy (a desire) to motivate Him for what He was destined to do. Surely this emotional stuff must be a good idea.

It is His grace that He stirs up in us a desire for Him. It is His grace that the things of God make us happy. Hunger is a greater gift than food because He's given us the ability to get our own food, so anytime food is on the table it is at least partly because of our own efforts. (We should still be thankful for it, of course, and it is good that we are.) Hunger is different - you can't make yourself hungry. You can cultivate hunger, and you can inspire hunger, but there is absolutely nothing you can do to create or remove how much hunger you currently sense. Put it another way - if you had no food, you could go look for some. What could you do if you had no sense of hunger (even when you needed to eat)? You would be completely helpless. You might be able to survive for a few days out of habit and discipline, to simply eat when you figure you need to. But the joy in eating would be gone, as would the sense of satisfaction, and the desire to find food... and I would like to propose that you wouldn't last in the long run.

God has given us even more than the gift of Himself (which is more that we could ask for already!!); He's also given us the gift of wanting Him, of loving Him. It is this gift that we must treasure, cultivate, ask God for more of... and it is this gift that we must look out for in others. I don't mean to say that some in the world have the gift and some don't... I don't know about that one. But I just mean that we need to look for those pre-believers who are hungry, who sense a desire they don't understand, and we need to be sensitive to that desire and seek to speak to it (or ask God to). Because ultimately, it is their hearts they need to give to God, not their minds, and God leads them to that place of surrendering their hearts by speaking to their hearts too. If we don't know how to be sensitive to their hearts, then perhaps we just need to let Him speak to ours a little more.

These few days, when I say grace at meals, I've been trying to thank God not just for the food, but for my hunger and the satisfaction that the food brings. It's still a new and slightly uncomfortable concept for me. But I think it is an apt parallel to thank Him not just for the things of the spirit, but to thank Him that Godly things make me happy and that He's given me a desire for more of them.

This relates to another thought I had some time ago. The physical perfections of the universe, the fine tuning of the chemistry of life and the gravitational constant and all those things... to some people these point to intelligent design, but to others they simply point to the fact that we are on the other side of random chance - if a million universes existed but only one was capable of life, that universe would naturally be the only one we see. I get that. But to me, there is absolutely no reason why those life beings should find beauty in that same universe. Why should these creatures of chance revel in the moving colours of a sunset, or have their heart leap in awe at mountains, or feel like the stars speak to them of something greater? Why should they even be happy or sad at all? Maybe there are atheistic reasons proposed for that too... but my point is just that I think it is much harder to explain our sense of beauty and how it matches with how things really are, than it is to explain the science behind why we are alive.

Our sense of beauty testifies to His sense of beauty. It is that love for colour, aesthetics, grace and kindness, deposited into every human heart, that gives us a hint that we are all linked to our common Creator and meant to be with Him. For it is He, clothed in rainbows and painter of every sunrise and sunset, who is the epitomy of all beauty and all that makes our hearts sing. He is kind, gentle, strong, beautiful, joyful, just, compassionate and patient... traits that make hearts from tribes and nations all around the earth leap with joy.

He is, unquestionably, the desire of every nation and every people.