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The rest of delight, wonder and presence

by | 30 November 2017, 5:26 PM

Are you tired, and looking for rest?

I’d wager a good number of us look for the latter in more sleep, or another K-drama binge. In reality our leisurely pursuits often end up leaving us feeling even more tired than before because they’re what we want – but not what we need.

We need true rest. That’s not a state of forced idleness or the absence of striving. True, Sabbath rest is a function of delight, wonder, and presence.

DELIGHT

To delight is to receive great pleasure from something.

In the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2, God delighted in his work when He saw creation as individually “good”, and collectively “very good”.

In my mind I see a potter who, having finished his masterpiece, leaves it spinning on the potter’s wheel as he kicks back in satisfaction. Holding a warm cup of coffee in his hand, he admires the vase with a smile.

The Creator God Himself found delight in His work, and then He rested. We are told to do the same.

Pressing in to God and delighting in Him – especially when we don’t feel like it – reaps rest that is truly restorative.

In The Dangerous Duty of Delight, John Piper writes that we are commanded to pursue pleasure in God. This might look like worshipping God even when we don’t feel like it. For when we pursue the joy that Jesus promises – God is glorified in this pursuit.

On when the cheerfulness of obedience is absent, Piper writes,

“First, confess the sin of joylessness. (“My heart is faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I,” Psalm 61:2.) Acknowledge the coldness of your heart. Don’t say that it doesn’t matter how you feel. Second, pray earnestly that God would restore the joy of obedience. (“I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart,” Psalm 40:8.) Third, go ahead and do the outward dimension of your duty in the hope that the doing will rekindle the delight.”

To delight is to be intentional; true rest, thus, paradoxically takes effort. But pressing in to God and delighting in Him – especially when we don’t feel like it – reaps rest that is truly restorative.

WONDER

Wonder is a blend of amazement, curiosity and longing. It is to admire something that cannot be fully comprehended or understood in its complexity or beauty – something beyond yourself.

It is the stuff of dreams, the grateful awe an exhausted mother feels when she first cradles the child who sat within her for months; the tears which well in your eyes when you see a humpback whale breach for the first time.

CS Lewis writes in his 1945 essay, Meditation In a Toolshed, about the difference between looking at something, and looking along something.

God intends for us to experience deep wonder in our walk with Him. We are rested and invigorated when we marvel.

Using a beam of light to illustrate his concept, looking at the beam is the method of materialism. It involves analysing the beam of light scientifically: Photons, energy, wavelengths, intensity. It grants us comprehensive understanding, but is impersonal.

In contrast, looking along the light illuminates that which it shines upon. It is where we see the connections between all things and how our humanity fits into a God’s larger narrative of great adventure.

God intends for us to experience deep wonder in our walk with Him. We are rested and invigorated when we marvel – firmly recognising that our little life is led by the Hand of an infinite God.

PRESENCE

Finally, true rest comes when we are aware of God’s presence with us.

Whether we are numb to it or have forgotten – we all have an innate, heartfelt need for God. We want to feel His love, taste His goodness firsthand and hear His voice for ourselves.

True rest comes when we are aware of God’s presence with us.

In the Bible, “Jehovah Shammah” (Ezekiel 48:35) was used to name the city in Ezekiel’s final vision, in which God was to be eternally present. And in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), Jesus assures his disciples of His presence to the very end of the age as bring the Gospel to the nations.

We all have an innate need for something profoundly higher in our lives, and nothing is more desirable – more soul-sating – than the very presence of God.

Have you encountered it?

Isn’t it amazing how God is able to reach through the mess and muddle, and meet you where you are? Whenever I go to Him, the God I know embraces me in the dirt and says, “My child, I am here.”

In a frantic life, He calls me to a pause. He blows the dust from my eyes, that I might see the world His way, delighting in the beauty amidst brokenness – knowing Him as Father.

And as I wonder at His glorious works, my eyes are further opened to a majestic tapestry He is weaving – one which He lets me be a part of!

And while I marvel at the privilege, He graces me with His presence. Each time I have to face the darkness in my life, I know Jesus waits for me with love and compassion in his eyes.

“I will give you rest, and so, so much more,” is what He says to me.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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The Modern Sabbath: Separating fact from fiction

by | 22 November 2017, 12:07 PM

One of today’s marks of a good Christian is one’s attendance of Church on Sunday morning.

Stay with me on that one. Why is attendance on Sunday even a benchmark of faith? Well, because of the fourth Commandment: Honour the Sabbath and keep it holy (Deuteronomy 5:12).

That means we have to go to Church on Sundays to sing songs, listen to someone talk for a while and throw some loose change into the bag before real life resumes around lunchtime. Penance paid, duties completed. Hey, maybe God will bless me with a bonus or good grades if I keep this up.

If you’re nodding your head – I hope it’s because you like sarcasm.

But seriously speaking, to properly understand the biblical concept of the Sabbath, it’ll be helpful to first consider some of the church’s misconceptions and disagreements over it for the past two millennia.

SABBATH ≠ “WORSHIP DAY”

In Mosaic Law, the Sabbath, or shabbat, was introduced to the Israelites as a holy day on which no work was to be performed following six days of work (Deuteronomy 5, Exodus 16, 31, 35, Nehemiah 13, Jeremiah 17).

In our terms, it actually falls on a Saturday, and till this day it begins on Friday night and ends after nightfall on Saturday. Their “first day” of the week is what we know as Sunday.

There are certain instructions given for a “holy convocation” or gathering to occur on the Sabbath (Leviticus 23), with special rites being performed (Numbers 28). The Sabbath was kept as a sign of God’s sanctification of the Israelites as they journeyed in a foreign land (Exodus 31:13).

However, in this post-captive Israelite community, worship was continually performed by the tribe of Levi, who continually made sacrifices on behalf of the wider community of Israelites. This worship wasn’t just on the Sabbath.

So while the Sabbath could well be an aspect of Jewish worship, they were not entirely the same thing.

For Gentile believers, we do not live by the same covenant. In the New Testament, Christians were recorded meeting in synagogues, not to worship, but to evangelise to the Jews who were gathered there, just as Paul did in Acts 18:4.

Early Christians met often – some every day – to study the Scriptures (Acts 17:11). Unlike the Jews who met on the Sabbath, the Bible tells us these Christians met on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:2, Acts 20:7), and were not bound to worship on the Sabbath day.

But even though the early Christians didn’t officially keep the Sabbath, it doesn’t necessarily mean we should follow suit. Discernment is key.

SO WHAT’S UP WITH SUNDAY SERVICE?

The Sunday worship tradition practiced by most churches today honours Christ’s resurrection, which took place on the day after the Sabbath (Matthew 28:1) – remember, the Sabbath falls on our Saturday – and was sealed in tradition by the authority of the Church over centuries.

There’s also a theory that examines the politics of the Roman Empire – some 300 years after Christ. In those days, Egyptian Mithraists set aside Sundays for their worship of the sun-god.

Sunday. Kinda makes sense, doesn’t it?

As Christianity grew and became secularised by politics, Church leaders wanted to attract some of these pagans into their ranks, and incorporated some pagan customs into Christian church ceremonies.

To differentiate themselves from Jews and win pagans over, they decided to appropriate the pagan festival of Sunday and turn it into an official Christian and civil holiday.

As Christians, we honour Christ’s resurrection by baptism – not Sunday-keeping.

Over time, the Catholic church assimilated this practice into their official doctrine, and subsequent generations of believers simply took their word for it.

“The Lord’s Day” soon replaced the concept of Sabbath entirely, reducing it to a kind of personal discipline similar to tithing or fasting. 

So traditions have nothing to do with the biblical concept of the Sabbath. Neither Christ’s death and resurrection, nor the Catholic Church’s convenient strategy should’ve made a difference to God’s original blessing (Mark 2:27).

As Christians, we honour Christ’s resurrection by baptism – not Sunday-keeping (Romans 6:3-6).

So, since I’m not Jewish, should I even bother about the Sabbath? Hold that thought – but prepare it for the gallows.

THE SABBATH IS NOT JUST A JEWISH THING

The concept of Sabbath actually predates Judaism entirely. Meaning “rest” in Hebrew, Sabbath follows a period of work, as seen from the account of Genesis.

Clues of its origins can be found in various languages worldwide, most of which are unrelated to Hebrew.

In over 100 diverse languages throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa, many unrelated to ancient Hebrew, “Sabbath” refers to Saturday, which was a designated day of rest. For example, in Ancient Babylon – which existed centuries before Abraham and the Hebrew race – the seventh day of the week was called “sa-ba-tu”.

Jesus – the Lord of the Sabbath himself – kept the Sabbath throughout his life. If His likeness is your life’s pursuit, the Sabbath is for you.

Despite the evolution of language over time, the original word for “rest” is still fairly recognisable in modern variants of these tongues.

And if you’re tempted to believe you can read the New Testament without the Old, here’s food for thought: Jesus – the Lord of the Sabbath himself (Luke 6:5) – kept the Sabbath throughout his life. 

Jesus understood the importance of the Sabbath when He customarily read Scripture in the synagogue (Luke 4:16). He even honoured the Sabbath in the grave.

If Jesus is your Lord, and His likeness is your life’s pursuit – the Sabbath is for you.

THE SABBATH IS NOT SIMPLY “ANY DAY”

In the creation story, God rested after six days of work.

Now wait a minute. Why does God even need to rest? Does that imply a certain lack of strength or ability on God’s part? Of course not – that would go against His omnipotent nature.

After seeing that His work was good (Genesis 1:31), God set aside a full day (literal or allegorical) for the purpose of rest, blessing it and calling it holy. On Day Seven, God simply basked in the enjoyment of His creation.

And He still invites us to be a part of that practice.

 The Sabbath is a gift from God for our enjoyment and welfare – not a yardstick of our personal holiness.

This seventh-day Sabbath is what the Jews were called to obey in Scripture as part of their Mosaic covenant. The Bible says it carries the special blessing of God.

Remember the hundred over ancient languages we talked about earlier? Among all the languages which used the word “Sabbath”, none of them designated a rest day apart from the seventh.

Perhaps seventh day rest extends far beyond the timeframe and locality of Jewish culture, given the plethora of cultures which point to the seventh day for rest.

THE SABBATH IS NOT AN OUTDATED RULE

In Mark 2:27, after being rebuked by Pharisees for letting his disciples “break” the Sabbath law, Jesus speaks of how their great king David was no different.

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

The Pharisees had missed the point. The Sabbath is a gift from God for our enjoyment and welfare – not a yardstick of our personal holiness.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.”
(Leviticus 19:9-10)

It precisely because of this law that Jesus’ disciples were able to be fed physically. If our practice of the Sabbath prevents us from exercising kindness and compassion, then we also have missed the point.

The Sabbath is intended for our ultimate redemption in the new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 66:22-23). It is part of God’s blueprint for a joyful, fulfilling and meaningful existence.

When you find yourself running on empty, losing the joy of living, or simply going through the motions of a bleak and meaningless existence – slow down.

Take a deep breath. You could use an injection of some Sabbath essence in your life.

THE SABBATH IS NOT “DOING NOTHING”

Practising the true Sabbath imbues in us a profound sense of responsibility towards ourselves, our fellow humans and the entire world we live in.

It’s more than a day each week – it’s every dayIt’s more than a Jewish thing – it’s for everybodyIt’s not an outdated way of living – it’s past, present, and future reconciled God’s way.

And it’s actually more than making God happy. It’s about trust, gratitude, and true rest expressed through the unforced rhythms of grace.

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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The fire of a man

by | 6 July 2017, 9:41 AM

I’ve been doing some thinking about manhood and found this interesting model:

Photo credit: http://www.artofmanliness.com/

At the core of this model lies activities like hunting and surviving wilderness: Spilling blood, building from scratch.

Surrounding this is a layer cushioned by society, still pushing, still striving: Thought leaders, competitive athletes and politicians.

The third layer are hands-on hobbies; just men doing stuff, figuring things out, playing.

The final layer comprises vicarious abstractions of those inner layers: Reading, watching, writing (perhaps about, you know, manly things).

As men move outward, from action to abstraction, from Alpha to Beta, the theory holds that men will be less satisfied with life.

They grow disillusioned. They lose that fire.

Ask yourself, man: Are you satisfied with your life?

If you aren’t, you don’t walk alone.

The vast majority of my life exists in the outermost layer. I’ve read Christian leadership and discipleship books exhorting Christian men to blaze that trail: Sign up for a manly retreat, where half-clothed brethren chop trees and wrestle around a crackly campfire.

Fly the flag! Chant a war cry! Ain’t nothin’ more manly than reliving the glory of Sparta.

But I don’t know, really.

While manhood certainly comes with its share of privileges, it often feels like a curse.

I’ve learnt that manhood is complex: Some men come alive on the outer rings. Some exhaust themselves vying for a place on the inner arena. Many hurt themselves staying or venturing where they think they ought to be, but not really knowing where that is.

I’ve also learnt that most men don’t know how to really be men, because nobody taught them to be. Behold, the perennial phenomenon of the absent father.

Enough of the stereotypes. I want to talk about what really defines a man.

Traditionally, men have been defined by their ability to protect, provide and procreate – the three pillars elevating Alpha from Beta.

For ages, men pursued mastery of the first two, biologically propelled by the third. But while manhood certainly comes with its share of privileges, it often feels like a curse.

History tells us men are expected to be more violent, manipulative and more likely to end up in prison. Name me an evil dictator who wasn’t male.

In our youth we might be most suited for conquest and adaptability, but society has often reduced us to cannon fodder – the convenient sacrifice for maintaining vast empires.

Men might be incredibly useful for society on the whole, but the same mechanisms that make use of men also destroy them on an individual level.

Society often raises us to be tough and emotionally detached. We’re forced to fend for ourselves from a young age. We confine ourselves in bunkers of our own expectations, only to find out they’re prison cells.

The core of manhood involves walking the path of life in all its messiness, acknowledging our weakness and reconnecting with our humanity.

So across all demographics, men suffer higher mortality rates. While more women become depressed, men are far more likely to commit suicide and become drug addicts. Strangely, we’re far less likely to report it. Maybe it’s the manly pride.

Which means that, ironically, because of the need for this strong front, we’re on many counts the weaker sex.

Not a very manly thought, is it?

The biggest problem about that old model is that it’s centred around man himself. He is preeminent, the goal and object of all satisfaction. He’s defined by arbitrary standards of who he should be. He lives for nothing bigger than himself. The three pillars hold nothing above them. They exist in a void.

Like you, I desperately crave the passion that eludes me. But exploring the core of manhood isn’t as simple as jumping into the primal/violent/heroic expressions of the three pillars.

Instead, it involves walking the path of life in all its messiness, acknowledging our weakness and reconnecting with our humanity.

We need to break free from outdated cultural expectations of masculinity and focus on being the men we’re specially created to be. We need to lay aside our need to be strong, and rediscover what it means to be kind, responsible and compassionate.

To feel, express and connect.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

What is manliness? What is manhood? Is there a separate, gender-specific set of the Fruit of the Spirit? Or are we all called to the same end-points of being loving, peaceable, gentle?

So unlike what the men’s magazines of the world might tell you, we must willingly put every fibre of our being through the crucible of brokenness.

A holy duty compels us to embark on the periodic pilgrimage to where we are stirred, ignited and awakened by something bigger than ourselves – where we come alive with clarity in our spirits about where we are and where we need to be.

So if you’re tired of life or feeling out of place, ask boldly to be stirred – shaken – for much bigger things. Ask Him to breathe again on the flickering embers of your broken spirit. Ask Him to raise you to life.

Ask for an an all-consuming fire that burns in you wherever you are. That sets ablaze the work of your hands and everyone with whom you cross paths.

Your manliness does not rest on how well you adhere to cultural norms, but by how honestly and courageously you carry that unique breath of life within you.

 

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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There’s no pride to be had in colourless conversations

by | 29 June 2017, 12:23 PM

In typical gimmicky fashion, after featuring the “thankful” purple flower reaction on Mother’s Day, Facebook has now included a “pride” reaction – unsurprisingly represented by a rainbow flag – this Pride week.

A couple of rainbow reactions might even find their way to this article.

Interestingly, as some have explained, this new feature is kindly “hidden” from “bigots”, so they never have to see or hear about it. How kind of them, not wanting to offend these proverbial bigots.

But it’s not really hidden, just inaccessible to users who hail from nations where same-sex marriage is not recognised. Everyone sees the flags, but not all can use the reaction until they go through some hurdles to unlock it.

While the global social media brand is known for such antics, I find this counterconducive to inclusive, tolerant society – which I think we can all agree we want Singapore to be.

And no, it’s not because my cultural sensibilities are offended, or I’m a homophobe. Not because I fear that any of my freedoms are in any way compromised by it. I’m Christian, but honestly, in our secular society, I believe people should be free to do what’s right in their eyes, as long other freedoms aren’t compromised. This has nothing to do with the “rightness” or “naturalness” of homosexual unions.

My issue is that it messes with the way we communicate. In an increasingly varied and liberal democracy where the values of tolerance and inclusivity ought to be respected, I feel the social media giant is taking one step forward and falling three steps back.

Words and symbols are these days a battleground, or at least, a recipe for unintended miscommunication. Pride, love and rainbows don’t mean what they used to an innocent generation ago.

All of the other Facebook reactions are tied to emotion, not identity. Emotions are universal to the human condition. But that rainbow is a call to just wear your sexuality on your sleeve and trumpet it as a universal reaction to … anything.

You may intend to communicate one thing (the feeling of pride, for instance), but effectively communicate another (a liberal stance on sexuality). To Christians, the rainbow is symbolic of an eternal covenant promise. To the scientist, it’s an interesting refractive optical phenomenon with no empirically perceivable meaning.

Think of all the fake news going around. It’s already seeping into mainstream news. It’s not really clear how to accurately discern fact (objective or subjective) from intentional satire these days.

Facebook’s move just adds more noise and confusion to the mix. It says that your response to something doesn’t have to be logical or sensitive. All of the other Facebook reactions are tied to emotion, not identity. I like something, I love it, I’m saddened by it, I’m in awe of it. Emotions are universal to the human condition.

But that rainbow is a call to just wear your sexuality on your sleeve and trumpet it as a universal reaction to … anything.

Imagine doing this with other aspects of our personality: My “Chinese-ness”, my faith, my stance on abortion/ecology/guns, my hetero-ness …

Imagine flags and symbols for every single aspect that makes up your identity, and shovelling it all over cyberspace in hope that every other unrelated thing on social media will get sprinkled with its essence.

You only succeed at numbing everyone to the dying art of conversation.

So, instead of reasoned discourse – the process where people learn to agree to disagree – the pages of religious/political groups get flooded with rainbow flags, which triggers a response of bans and unhappy emojis, putting a quick end to any form of mature conversation between individuals of differing opinions. At a time when we most need it.

Everyone loses.

I mean, why bother with growing in understanding or empathy, right? Why waste time on debate when collective heckling is so much more fun? These days it’s so easy to mock others from behind the cloak of cyber-anonymity, or emboldened by the cyber-distance. All in the name of love, they say.

Love. Another loaded word, like rainbows and pride.

What is love? And, for that matter, what isn’t love?

Love is not about fighting to win wars. Love wins when the fighting stops.

Love is not a blanket affirmation of however another chooses to live. Love should be bold and vulnerable enough to talk about things that matter to those who matter to us.

Love is not sex. Love comes with surrender, submission, sacrifice and self-control.

Love is not about fighting to win wars. Love wins when the fighting stops – when the trolling, shouting, dissing and mocking stop.

And, of course, Love is not a meaningless Facebook reaction. Love is being able to communicate in humility and with respect for differing views. It’s the ability to understand the other side well by putting yourself in others’ shoes, while having good reasons for where you stand.

Which means moving beyond that Facebook reactions premised on identity – what more would there be to say? – and into honest conversations.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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Life lessons from Wonder Woman

by Esther "Slidingtackles" | 28 June 2017, 5:50 PM

WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND!
GO WATCH FIRST THEN COME BACK, CAN?

Wonder Woman (2017) introduces us to strong fierce Amazonian women who were created by Zeus to restore peace and stability to a war torn world. Set in the context of World War 1, the movie brings two worlds together to understand one truth: Love does bring redemption.

Captain Steve Trevor crashes his plane into the waters of Themyscira while escaping from German authorities and is rescued by Diana, a young budding Amazonian. She begs him to bring her to this war front as she cannot bear to hear of women and children slaughtered. She fights, inspired others who do not have her physical superpowers and works in a team of 5 to defeat the enemy. She matures to understand the depth of humankind, the relationship between gods and man.

The two protagonists are beautifully complementary, as both try to save what they cherish in ways unique to themselves.

The idea of redeeming a race that chooses the path of wrongdoing strikes me as quintessentially Christian.

With elements of Greek mythology – the gods’ relation to humankind, coupled with really badass fight scenes and fantastic graphics – this film successfully fuses the wonder of fantasy and myth to the nearness of reality.

As a Christian and 21st century university student, I can’t help but observe how Wonder Woman possesses religious as well as feminist undertones. Most refreshingly, I love how the two seem perfectly compatible.

Allow me to share some takeaways.

1. The need to intentionally broaden our perspectives

It’s very important to seek understanding about what we aren’t used to – because that’s the path to maturity and growth.

Steve and Diana both needed to understand things that were out of their comfort zone, and getting there can be the most uncomfortable, ridiculous thing. For Steve, this “magical place” called Themyscira was an absurd, silly entity. Furthermore, given Diana’s extreme innocent ideals about war, he was often left in disbelief. While it would’ve been a shock to his mind, he never directly dismissed her claims.

No trumping. No interjecting. No mansplaining.

Diana’s mother had a very protective approach to raising her child. She didn’t want to tell Diana the truth for fear of the consequences of living a violent life. But the thing is such helicopter mothering policy reinforced Diana’s ignorance about the outside world, revealed by her interaction with Steve.

Thankfully, I really appreciate how she eventually relented (albeit with some emotional blackmail). Diana’s mom just let her daughter go out and experience the world for herself. As Diana’s aunt said – the best way the girl can defend herself is if she learnt to protect herself. For Diana, it was a journey of testing all her pre-existing foundations of truths while remaining true to her values. Her renewed understanding of humankind in all its imperfections adds richness and depth to her character.

Moving on to religious ideas/allusions …

2. The world neither desires nor deserves redemption

The idea of redeeming a race that chooses the path of wrongdoing strikes me as quintessentially Christian. It is interesting that Hippolyta tells Diana that the world doesn’t deserve her.

Diana’s raw, passionate love, desire to save humanity from killing themselves and empathy sets her apart as a hero whose superpower seems to be that. I don’t deny she’s powerful (deflecting bullets, summoning lightning or her truth rope). But her compassionate and courageous heart seems to be the source of her exploits.

Sacrificing himself to save the front from being exposed to the mustard gas, Steve’s last words to Diana were, “I save today so you can save the earth tomorrow” is reminiscent of Jesus saving mankind so they could share that salvation with others.

What a powerful allegory of the Father’s love for us.

3. Evil is not a simple clash of two sides

In contrast to a simple love versus hate battle, Steve laments to Diana on the boat to London that war is a complicated affair. It’s not always clear who’s in the right or wrong when everyone’s caught up with survival and their rights. In our depravity, we wonder if human beings really bring about their suffering themselves. Ares tells Diana he didn’t start wars; he merely whispered thoughts into human ears to fan the flames of what already lay hidden.

Original sin? You bet.

Nevertheless, justice isn’t a one off thing, because after World War 1, World War 2 came. and yet for a brief moment, the world had respite thanks to the courage of a saviour who stepped up when no one else dared to. We see this in Wonder Woman and in Jesus. We ought to step up in our own spheres of influence too (Micah 6:8). In His Kingdom, God empowers us to champion righteousness, justice and love as He does.

You must fight the good fight. Whoever you may be – male, female, whatever – you already have what it takes to make a difference wherever you are. As Steve encouraged Diana, it is what you believe that defines you.

4. Women can be empowered alongside men, not always at the expense of men

What a compelling message about the power of women.

My breath was stolen every time the Amazonians threw themselves into a fight scene on horseback and with bows and arrows. Such feminine strength and confidence is rarely presented on-screen without coming across as satirical or erotic.

My heart raced when Diana ran across No Man’s land, aptly named because no “male” could cross it for years. I adored the way director Patty Jenkins flung gender stereotypes out the window without spiting the other side.

She provoked an uncomfortable empathy, when a man kneeled afraid at the mercy of powerful females, but most of all, she also allowed both genders to shine in their own light. Yes, the superhero was a woman this time, but the male lead was equally iconic, valiant and honourable. Men and woman alike have the power, the desire, and the ability to make a change, lead, or save the world.

To understand others.

To love.

To feel, and be free to express those feelings without fear of judgement.

An inspiring and moving call for justice, equality, honesty and courage, Wonder Woman brilliantly sheds much needed light on how Good tackles the complex, convoluted problem of evil, and our special little place in the whole thing.

And I’m definitely excited to see how that will unfold in our real world.

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Scarred by the hand of man, saved by the Hand of God: A pastor’s journey of grace

by | 24 June 2017, 10:02 AM

He was only five when it happened.

In those days, young Ian loved watching his father play Chinese Chess with the neighbourhood’s older residents. In fact, he looked solely to his father for pretty much everything: Providence, counsel, instruction and protection. After all, this man had taught him to ride a bike, play chess and everything else that fathers taught their sons in 1980s Singapore. On his father’s strong shoulders, he soared without care in the world.

But that day, everything changed. While his father was preoccupied with his game of chess, another man sat down by Ian’s side. Ian recognised the man – his mere presence unsettled him.

“He slipped his hands down my pants. I didn’t understand what was happening. I knew I was being violated. And yet, I could never bring myself to tell anyone.”

The man’s next deed would haunt Ian for the next 30 years.

“He slipped his hands down my pants and stimulated me. I didn’t understand what was happening. It was all very confusing because physically it was pleasurable, but I knew I was being violated. And yet, I could never bring myself to tell anyone.”

Sexually awakened at five, boyish curiosity drove him to chronic masturbation.

And this landed him on the receiving end of his father’s discipline. One occasion was extremely bad, he remembers. His father came home to find him touching himself in the presence of his mother and grandmother. “It was the beating of my life,” he sighs.

In typical Singapore Chinese authoritarianism fashion, Ian was no stranger to physical discipline. But this time, the sting of physical blows was overshadowed by the shame of being chastised by the man he adored and wanted to become. In that moment, father and son were estranged, and Ian blamed himself entirely for the rift.

Biologically, his body was responding to his habits. His parents brought him to baffled doctors, where he underwent invasive examinations of his intimate parts. “Those experiences were far worse than the time I got molested,” he says, laughing at the thought.

Convinced he wasn’t normal, Ian drifted into reclusion, often going fishing by himself late into the night. He relegated his father to merely a chauffeur, otherwise giving him the silent treatment. Maybe it’s just a phase, his father recalled thinking then. The storm will pass.

But the wind and waves were only just beginning.

Come Out. Come Home.

I believe shame dies when stories are told in safe places. When I shared my story to my church and Dad, I found myself freed from the bondage and repercussions of being sexually abused when I was 5 years old. Today I choose to share my story with you. My hope is that it will help many others to experience the freedom and love as I did. I believe every story counts. It counts to know that you are not alone. If you are a victim of sexual abuse. If you are wounded and silenced, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to share your story with someone you trust and let them journey with you.Shame has no place in our purpose, plan and destiny. Be unashamed to speak.– Pastor Ian#IAmUnashamed

Posted by 3:16 Church on Friday, 23 June 2017

In his teens, Ian was exposed to pornography through polytechnic classmates. Given his troubled past, he quickly slipped into addiction. It was both a crutch and a poison, comforting and destroying him all at once.

“I’d lock myself in my room and watch videos late into the night. Before long I was missing lessons and skipping school entirely just to get my fix. Didn’t help that I was in IT and knew my way around.”

He describes the vicious cycle: Frustration over bad grades would land him deeper into throes of vicarious sexual fantasy, which would in turn undermine his academic goals. “My father wasn’t rich. But he still bought me a $4,000 computer for school – which was really a lot in those days. I just had to use it to watch all that filth.”

He allows himself a wry laugh through tears and trembling fists.

“Back then I had no idea, but God was already doing His healing and liberating work in me.”

Something had to give – and school was the first thing to go. But dropping out of school only brought Ian more shame, isolation and anger. He applied for enlistment as early as possible to avoid having to deal with his family, with whom the pent-up tension was overbearing, he said.

All he wanted to do was get away. On enlistment day, he trudged into camp alone and almost signed-on because he desperately wanted a new life – any life other than the one he had.

But little did he know, a very different kind of awakening lay just around the corner. And while its effect on his life was to be equally dramatic, it was going to pull him in an entirely different direction.

His girlfriend had been bringing him to church on the weekends. After a gracious officer granted him five days’ leave to attend a church camp, he personally encountered God.

“For the first time I felt this great, great love wrap around me. I knew I was a sinner, but there was no guilt, no shame, no anger – only love. Down on my knees, I wept uncontrollably. I think that was the first step towards healing for me.”

Of course, coming to faith didn’t solve everything immediately. But it was a step in the right direction, a recalibration of his inner compass. For the first time in his life, there was clarity, purpose and joy.

His response was dramatic: At the post-camp thanksgiving session, he decided and declared in front of the congregation that he wanted to serve God full-time in church!

Credit: 3:16 Church / Austen Chua

And so, once he was done with Full-Time National Service, he started work in church as a ministry staff. Still struggling with the darkness of his private life, an inner tension pulled within him as he served. Most of his mentors didn’t know about his secret.

But with the few he confided in, grace always abounded, Ian recounts. He never felt judged, only loved and encouraged to press on in the good fight of faith. “Back then I had no idea, but God was already doing His healing and liberating work in me.”

After 10 years of serving the youths, he was ordained as a pastor and his ministry was remarkably fruitful. But God was just about to shake him up again for a new season.

On a mission trip to the Philippines, he witnessed a young boy crossdressing and speaking with a high-pitched voice. The kid was about the same age as Ian was when he had been molested. Immediately, God spoke to Ian’s spirit, giving him a glimpse of His love for the boy.

“I knew right there that God was calling me to reach out in unconditional love to the broken: Those on the fringes of society, who struggle hard and often alone. God wanted me to love them.”

It was the piece of the puzzle that gave Ian a glimpse of the big picture. His journey of sexual brokenness equipped him specially for the task of restoring the brokenness of others. As he found grace to overcome, God now challenged him to show grace to others.

Leaving his old church, he teamed up with a group of friends with the same vision and started what he calls the 3:16 movement – after perhaps the Bible’s most iconic verse in the book of John, where Jesus describes His Father’s unending, transcendent, unconditional, transformational love.

Credit 3:16 Church / RY

Today 3:16 Church is a vibrant, growing community grounded on that same love – where every member is empowered to love everyone in society, so all may experience it for themselves.

Recently, God challenged him to a deeper level of vulnerability as an example to his congregation. Hoping other church leaders would follow suit, he shared his past on the pulpit. His dad, who sat in the crowd walked up to him after the message and confessed the guilt he carried from 30 years before, when he beat his son badly. Though the emotional scars remain, God gave Ian the strength to forgive his father.

As the Tohs shared a tearful embrace that day, father and son experienced complete reconciliation.

They now make up for the lost years by building the Kingdom of their Heavenly Father together.

About his sexual struggles, Ian confesses that his temptations remain strong as ever. The difference now is they no longer have power over him. “Now I have a choice, and that choice can only reflect the incredible love that I have experienced in Jesus. I never want to go back there again.”

With eyes fixed on his Lord and Saviour, Ian continues to walk out his faith as a loving son, husband, father to his family; pastor to his church; and neighbour to every lonely soul spiritually left for dead from the Detention Barracks in Yew Tee to the streets of Geylang.

Today, he’s visibly tired, but a deep sense of purpose and joy drives him to the second mile. “If I could put a smile on their faces, that would be one life changed for the better.”

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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Bullied into a corner – and there I met grace

by Esther "Slidingtackles" | 23 June 2017, 3:05 PM

I was a late bloomer; as recently as six years ago I lacked assets, to say the least. As you might imagine, I was teased and taunted with all kinds of nasty names. Airport runway.

It isn’t a big deal now; puberty hits some later than others. But back then, such words hit me hard.

And as puberty progressed, the insults took different forms and intensified.

Maybe she stuffed her bra. So they named me “Tissue”. People kept asking me for some, and laughing when I didn’t know what they meant.

The bullying progressed from the merely verbal to the physical. My books got shoved into the bin. I walked into class one morning to find my papers overturned and Coke “spilled” onto my chair. At recess, my diary was taken from my bag and my classmates read through it without my consent.

The most painful part was that I had nobody to talk to. I didn’t know who to trust. Whenever I thought someone was being friendly toward me, I would later find them laughing with their friends behind my back. About me.

So I stopped trusting people. I’d keep looking back when I walked around in school, out of fear.

Even the head of the performing arts group I was in got involved. On the day of our performance, 5 minutes before going on stage, I was told that I would not be allowed to perform. Dressed from top to toe in my stage outfit, my soul was shattered; nine months of blood, sweat and tears flushed into the gutter.

I locked myself inside my room and cried my heart out.

I lived every day detesting school. I’d force myself to go, then rush home as soon as the bell rang.

Teachers found out, but my nightmare continued. By then, my plight had spread online (thanks Twitter) and become impossible to hide. I wanted to run away from it all and get off social media to shield myself, but I found myself trying to defend myself online. I was also anxious to see what others were tweeting about me.

By Sec 3, I had retreated into a shell. I lived every day detesting school. I’d force myself to go, then rush home as soon as the bell rang.

I don’t even know how I managed to survive secondary school.

It’s been years since then and I must confess the scars remain. But though they hurt, each tells a tale of glorious redemption. I’ve come to realise that with God, all things – even painful, tragic, terrible things – happen for good.

In my own struggles, I became awakened to the inaudible cries of other silent strugglers around me. God placed His heart for them in mine. Though I see in them the fear I once carried, and the same demons that used to torment my miserable, lonely existence, I also see love – the same relentless love the Father has for me.

In them I see the chains that gripped an unguarded mind struggling to make sense of it all, all culminating in helpless isolation, where every stare is interpreted as judgement, and every comment feels loaded.

But I also experienced His grace abounding to me in raging rivers. I wanted others to experience that, too.

I can only look back in wonder – that I didn’t only survive but come out stronger and wiser than I could have dreamt. As I bore the weight of my past, God called me forward. And as I walked to Him, He did the deep healing work in my heart.

He brought me a special bunch of schoolmates who showed me what real love looked like. They took me as I was, broken and all, and healed me back. Through them, He restored my trust in people.

He taught me that strength isn’t always about retaliation or revenge. It’s about love.

Recovery is often a long, long road. For years, certain words still made me uneasy. I’d distanced myself from typical “girly” norms, because the girls I knew were all “one kind”. I was socially awkward, and often lied to blend in with the crowd. I was desperate for acceptance.

Well-meaning people advised me to just “be yourself”. But I wondered how, when “myself” was what got me bullied for 4 straight years.

Then I learnt that I should simply be the woman I was made to be.

In my own struggles, I became awakened to the inaudible cries of other silent strugglers around me.

I want to say to anyone who’s been hurt by others, or is still in a position of pain: It sometimes feels impossible to trust or talk to people. But while some people hurt us, there will always be others who can help you, who care, and who will always be there for you.

You are never alone until you decide to be. Don’t decide to be, because you are loved with an incredible, unconditional love.

For healing to begin, you must have the courage to open your heart to God and connect again with others. It might take a while – 3 years for me, all the way through A-levels. But it will come if you allow yourself to trust people again.

Lastly, to those who threw me down so hard for 4 years of my life: I forgive you. The little girl who cowered beneath your caustic, battering words … she might’ve been a late bloomer, but her time has come.

This woman knows who she is and the path ahead. She walks it out unhindered by her past, free and strong. She doesn’t have to fight for scraps. She freely receives, freely gives. She knows her strength and uses it ferociously for good.

Nothing shakes her. She knows she’s deeply loved. A fire has been awakened in her heart.

Thank you for empowering her to help others, offer them strength and hope through the storms of life that they may one day stand on their own two feet.

And that woman will laugh fearlessly, not at the plight of others, but because she’s learnt the meaning of grace. And armed with that, she will make the world a much, much better place.

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Are we building the kingdom we were meant to?

by | 22 June 2017, 11:11 AM

This is a tale of two kingdoms.

But they don’t occupy different territories, nor do patrolled borders lay between them. They are infused but in theory they’re immiscible, incapable of being mixed, retaining their distinct flavours while freely coexisting in the heavily mixed world today.

Two kingdoms. One is the kingdom we’re told Jesus told us to build – the culture of Church and religion. And the other is the kingdom He really intended for us to build.

Today, so many of us are so preoccupied with maintaining a pure, orthodox version of the faith when we don’t even know what that is.

We’re historically quick to purge the impurity from our midst while pronouncing anathema on those who question our unquestionable creeds, culture and leaders. We don’t care if they’re genuinely curious or struggling. Out of fear, we assume they’re rebellious, selfish and troublesome. Some claim to worship the Bible but then refuse to seek Jesus directly (John 5:39-40).

Today we’re fighting over who can really speak tongues (actual languages, or some angelic utterance?), how to dress to “not stumble” (can you wear shorts to cell group?), or prescribing specific models of family (remember, Paul said singlehood was preferable!).

The tragedy is I’m only half-joking. We idolise what is good and make it our god.

But although our world is spiritually more hungry than ever, the church often turns them away.

We turn them away with our politics, or our claim to absolute truth and morality, without bothering to defend or explain it.

We turn them away when we conduct censuses of our victories, or expect larger society to feel a moral compulsion to live by standards of ancient Judaism we ourselves fail and are indifferent to.

We turn them away when we don’t even know our own Gospel, or smash them with creeds and traditional cultural norms before inviting them to “come and see” Jesus for themselves.

In the modern world, Christianity as a worldview has lost the cultural war.

That’s the first kingdom – the established culture and vocabulary of this religion. I’m not sure it’s the kingdom we were meant to build; the church I hold dear needs to hold much more tightly to what matters, and much more loosely to everything else.

And it’s dawned on me, the kingdom that is losing – the which we’re desperately trying to hold up amidst a wave of wider lawlessness – isn’t the one Jesus spoke of.

When Jesus walked among humanity, His harshest words weren’t to those who sinned, but those who spent great time and energy calling out the sin of others. The whitewashed tombs of Matthew 23:27.

I apologise if this causes offence – the church taught me to speak the truth in love, so I must try. I don’t question the need for unity or submission to authority, but I think we need to step back to see how Christianity has lost its appeal.

Because in the modern world, Christianity as a worldview has lost the cultural war. I know Jesus said we would always face persecution – but it should not be for what we stand for (ill-reasoned arguments, unsympathetic positions), but for who we stand for.

Among the scientifically inclined, philosophical naturalism is dominant. A growing proportion of thinkers unthinkingly echo Nietzsche’s famous post-Enlightenment declaration of “God is dead” without understanding his larger philosophy. I’ll try not to be crudely reductionist here – the serious atheists would object – but nihilism logically follows naturalism. (The issue is not with science, but with most people rejecting everything except science.)

And the truth is that that deep down, naturalist or not, many are walking the road to nihilism: When eternity is taken out of the equation, nothing actually matters.

So how can we make Christianity relevant again?

To speak life into a world trending toward meaninglessness, we Christians must first be present, respect the human condition and empathise with the struggles of others – not bluntly push a worldview that is unrealistic and onerous to others.

We need to help the deep thinkers to consider the Gospel along the path of nihilism, rather than denying the flow of modern thought altogether and calling it “ungodly”. Such thought isn’t inherently sin; we are merely ploughing the familiar paths the Teacher did in Ecclesiastes.

Bring God in and let Him guide you to truth.

When eternity is taken out of the equation, nothing actually matters.

Perhaps it’s time to embrace the concept of “God is dead”. I don’t mean to suggest for a second that He doesn’t exist. What I mean is, maybe it’s time to put aside that first kingdom, of pre-established notions of religion, and really look to establish that second kingdom: Bringing Jesus, and not merely shadows of Him, into the world.

If we must stand up for one thing, let it not be the minor differences inevitably tied to our human condition, cultural norms or barricading ourselves up in fear of impurity. Yes, faith is highly political but if others must stumble, let them personally stumble over the person of Christ – not our politics or cultural idiosyncrasies.

We should stand unashamedly for the saving grace of He who, from the Cross of Calvary, looked at the world in all its grave folly and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Truth be told, we rarely know what we’re doing. We’re here only by the grace of God. May we have the grace to consider others in the same light.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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The unforced rhythms of grace

by Esther "Slidingtackles" | 18 June 2017, 2:28 PM

Rest: That which stills your body, soul and spirit – whatever releases you momentarily from the pressures of society. It could involve sleep, just chilling with friends over food and drinks, or simply being alone for a while.

The point is, rest is important. It’s not a barrier to be overcome but an enabler of a balanced, productive life.

More than halfway through university life, I wish I’d learnt this slightly earlier.

You see, I love to do stuff. I’m super active and energetic. People know me as the girl who cannot sit still for prolonged periods of time. I’m a loud and proud extrovert – maybe it’s the mild ADHD but “chill” just isn’t in my dictionary. I don’t know how to rest.

But I’ve realised, after 21 years of existence, that I too need rest.

I now know too well what burnout feels like. I also know that different parts of our being – physical, mental and spiritual – rest in different ways.

PHYSICAL REST

Physical rest is something terribly underrated, especially to those told they could achieve anything if only they work hard enough. (Hint: University students).

Burning midnight oil is the norm for young adults. We stay up till 4 a.m., sleep a little before dragging ourselves to an 8 a.m. lesson. Most people are heavily drugged with black coffee and caffeine pills.

After class, we might stagger back to our dorms or any random corner to doze for about 2 hours. Then it’s lunch before the next 3-hour seminar or lab session. The night brings no respite. There’s always something to do or someone to talk to, so we finally get to studying at about 1 a.m. and the cycle repeats – for the whole semester.

We’re just bulldozing our way through our early twenties and ignoring our bodies’ silent screams.

That’s 13 good long weeks of zombieland … And it’s completely normalised. Sometimes I’m not sure if people sharing such lives on social media are boasting, inspirational or really crying for help.

And there we go, just bulldozing our way through our early twenties and ignoring our bodies’ silent screams.

Truth is, we all need to take some time out to get a few good hours of rest. Better still, make that one whole night of solid, undisturbed sleep. If you truly value your life, make this a priority. It’s a great way to exercise self-care.

MENTAL REST

Multitaskers – they’re the ones involved in 7 to 8 CCAs in school – tend to suffer a great deal from a lack of this. I’m guilty as charged. Training, college events, planning for camps, overseas community service programmes, hall productions … And the list goes on.

If you’re in an executive committee, the responsibilities are endless. From sending emails to vendors to coordinating manpower and logistics, there’s always something to handle. And during the peak periods of these projects, all while juggling academic responsibilities, mental strength leaks out from our brains drastically.

Oh, the incessant pressure. It drives you but it kills you too.

We find ourselves trying to hold everything together, forgetting that our minds need rest. One minute I’m trying to reply an email I’ve taken too long to respond to and the next, I’m trying to update an excel sheet of our expenditure.

Oh, the incessant pressure. It drives you but it kills you too. And just like your body, your mind cries silently. Perhaps it’s time to switch off our phones and get away from the buzz of everything. At least for a while.

SPIRITUAL REST

Funny how my Martha habits spill over from school into church as well.

Again, I learnt the hard way that serving incessantly in church is not spiritual rest. It could be if you allowed it to – if you flowed with the Holy Spirit instead of paddling hard with your own vision and strength.

But the non-stop Bible study and mentoring I was giving to others completely emptied my cup. I wrung every last drop from my soul for others. Maybe it was pride or misplaced zeal. Maybe I was trying to prove something. Nevertheless, I assumed it was the right thing to do. I pressed on and quickly found myself burnt out.

I’ve learnt that the essence of spiritual rest is to give God space.

I must confess, of all the types of rest I need, this one still confounds me.

Different people have different ways of finding it, but I’ve learnt that the essence of spiritual rest is to give God space. Whether through Sunday sermons, prayer, His Word or even connecting with another member of the Body, it is so important to just let Him speak and saturate us again with His power and presence.

When I finally allowed myself quiet time to go back to God, I felt healed, refreshed and strengthened.

Not just physically or mentally but with a renewed perspective: My soul felt released from the emotional pressures, tensions, burdens of society and family. Free from everything that had weighed heavily on my fragile heart and mind. Of everything I put my hope, identity and joy in.

I learnt to cast all my cares on Him, for He cares for me (1 Peter 5:7). That His yoke is easy and burden light (Matthew 11:30).

REST BEFORE YOU BREAK

Sometimes I try to appear strong. I convince myself that sleep is for the weak and that others race ahead while my lazy self catches some shut-eye.

But today, I take baby steps into the light. I humbly remind myself that I’m weak. That I’m human and I need rest too – we all do. Life is not a mindless rat race but a very different race for the One who runs to us with open arms.

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

So please, if you’re like me, cut yourself some slack. It’s summer. You deserve a break as well.

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If I don’t show up

by | 14 June 2017, 11:30 AM

Some nights, before I sleep, I browse through my phone calendar. (Not the best way to deal with insomnia, I’ll admit.)

I have little reminders set up for almost every day of the month. They whisper silent jeers; I wish they weren’t there. But I put them there.

They’re mostly “faith-related”. God things – accountability, discipleship, ministry, prayer. Good things.

Once in a blue moon, I might feel pumped up for one of these. But the stars rarely align. More often than not I feel tired and overwhelmed. My weary mind asks itself:

What if I don’t show up?

What if I don’t show up for prayer meetings, or cell group, or fellowship dinners, or yet another church event?

What a lovely thought. I may actually feel good about it, for a while. Maybe even lose my eyebags.

If I don’t show up the sun will still rise, and Switchfoot’s Where I Belong – the song I’ve currently set as my alarm clock tune – would still blare from my phone’s little speakers, jarring me to consciousness a little too soon.

As you may have discovered, assigning your favourite songs as your alarm tone is the surest way to change your musical taste. Yet to my amazement, Where I Belong is into its third month in the hot seat – a seasonal record. (By comparison, Matt Redman’s Your Grace Finds Me got the boot after a week and a half. This is Living lasted one day.)

DARK CLOUDS ON THE PLAINS AGAIN

Storms on the wasteland
Dark clouds on the plains again
We were born into the fight

My fingers circle wearily around the snooze button. What if I no longer want to fight? What if I don’t show up?

If I don’t show up, I may piss some people off, but weighed against the cosmic tide from eternity past to eternity future, my to-do list is a candle to the sun. It’s no fight, really. Besides, people already seemed pissed with most things in life – relationships, expectations, that new job opportunity, someone’s sickness.

If I don’t show up, I’d still have the things that matter – the family I love and friends who’d understand. My mother would still nag at me for skipping breakfast and ask if I need dinner later.

If I don’t show up, I’d be comfortable and free to read books all day, without having to knock shoulders with uptight people who think their busyness will save them. I’d have a roof over my head and food on my table.

But not everyone would.

If I don’t show up, I would be surrendering to a self-fulfilling prophecy that my life counts for nothing.

There’d still be the forgotten – hungry, hurting and broken. There’d still be great injustice, and rag-clothed children whose eyes would pass over the words of a page and get nothing out of it, because they never had the opportunity to learn to read.

There’d be people wandering through life fighting for survival. To keep their heads above the waves long enough to create progeny, whom they’d then live completely for because there is nothing else for them in this world.

They need charity. More so, justice. Even more so, they need the Way, Truth and Life. And someone’s got to point them.

If I don’t show up, who will?

I WANT TO TELL YOU THAT I TRIED

Every morning, Where I Belong plays to its final chorus, and the following lines are enough for me to kick off that comfy blanket.

On the final day I die
I want to hold my head up high
I want to tell You that I tried
To live it like a song

If I don’t show up, I’d have time to fiddle on the guitar while never having to depart from my preferred posture – comfortably horizontal upon my mattress. But art can only express the human condition, and if the caverns of my heart are empty, there’d be no song – just the echoes of a very mechanical drum. Music without soul, life without life.

In Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, senior devil Screwtape writes to Wormwood about life’s law of undulation: “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

If I don’t show up, I would be surrendering to a self-fulfilling prophecy that my life counts for nothing. I’d be squandering my potential but for Christ to live – gloriously, powerfully, beautifully – in me. That’s not a boast. That same potential exists in all of us.

The law of undulation tells us that like summer and winter, tough times will come, but the good times will too. The good fight is always worth it. So choose your alarm well, say a prayer, get up and show up.

That’s why it is said: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14)

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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The danger of anger

by Mattias Tan | 13 June 2017, 11:37 AM

I’m sure you’ve felt this way some point in your life. This undeniable boiling, bubbling on the inside; your fists are clenched, muscles tensed, fangs bared and seething with rage. Your entire body is on the edge, raring to go, like a greyhound on the racetrack. All it takes is a single match, a single spark, a single wrongly-placed or inappropriate comment and …

That’s right. Boom.

Such rage. It’s everywhere.

Gamers rage quit. Parents rage at defiant kids. Even the apostles James and John, who were in Jesus’ inner circle, were referred to as the Sons of Thunder in Luke 9:54, where they wanted to call down fire from heaven in a fit of rage.

Hitler Rage

Life, y’know? So often we find ourselves like bubbling cauldrons, and sometimes it all just spills over. But rage isn’t good for us.

TOXIC WRATH

Research shows that people who rage easily have a 19% higher chance of getting heart disease compared to their calmer counterparts. Stress hormones race through our veins when we’re angry, causing our blood vessels to tighten and blood pressure to rise. Over time, this constant contraction and relaxation of our artery walls can damage them due to wear and tear.

In addition, many other health ailments are associated with rage: Strokes, anxiety disorders, depression, lowered lung capacity, airway inflammation, weakened immunity system and even a shortened life.

In the Bible, there were many instances where rage led to terrible things happening. Moses, in his anger with the Israelites, struck the rock at Meribah instead of speaking to it, thus preventing him from leading the Israelites into the Promised Land (Numbers 20). In his anger, Cain murdered Abel, which meant that Cain could no longer live a peaceful farming existence but had to wander the earth (Genesis 4).

At the moment of outrage, which god do we serve?

God repeatedly cautions us in His Word against the danger of anger. Ephesians 4:26 warns us against sinning while angry, and Proverbs 29:22 states that an angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins. The list goes on.

Despite knowing that, in our anger, we do things on impulse, often without thinking. In my younger years, I have said and done many rash things in anger, which I have later regretted.

But God doesn’t just say “don’t do this” or “don’t do that”. He doesn’t just leave us with rules, but shows us the better way forward. Proverbs 29:11 tells us that a fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control, and Proverbs 15:18 urges us to be the patient man who calms the quarrel, rather than being hot-tempered and stir up conflict.

ANGER IN PERSPECTIVE

Over time, as I’ve grown closer to God and learnt to walk in step with Him, I’ve learnt – often the hard way – to keep my temper in check. No, the flashpoints didn’t go away, yes, it’s difficult – I still flare up from time to time.

But I’ve learnt something crucial: At the end of the day we must learn to look to God and trust Him in our anger. We must invite Him into our rage, so that He can calm the storm.

It’s the lesson of Psalm 2, which begins: Why do the nations rage?

And the solution is this: Appreciate that whatever it is you’re raging about, there is a greater fury to fear.

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury.
Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.(Psalm 2:4-5, 10-12)

We are creatures of outrage. We are addicted to anger. We can’t help ourselves. And the truth is, so much of our rage is legitimate. So justifiable.

But that’s not the point. The point is this: At the moment of outrage, which god do we serve?

In our anger, do we offer up sacrifices to the altar of sin? Do we think murderous thoughts about others? Do we allow our tongue to go untamed? Do we think of people with contempt, not compassion?

We must learn to look to God and trust Him in our anger. We must invite Him into our rage, so that He can calm the storm.

The lesson of Psalm 2 is this: That whatever judgment you are passing on others in your anger, know that there is a greater judgment that is yet to come, when you will have to give an account for your thoughts and actions. For every word you speak (Matthew 12:36).

So let it go. It’s not worth it. Surrender your anger. Let God vindicate you, not your fists and foul words.

Kiss the Son – take refuge in Him. We invite Him into our rage – so that He can calm the storm.

 

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Politics and faith: If you’re not on the side of the Right, then what’s Left?

by | 7 June 2017, 5:19 PM

In the light of the “political Left’s” reaction to the Trump administration pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, American conservative blogger Erick Erickson recently wrote: “Worrying about global warming and social justice won’t get you past the pearly gates. Saving souls will.”

He added: “It’s hard to save souls when you don’t believe in the God of creation because you are too busy worshipping that creation.”

Politics in the “Land of the Free” is defined by an increasingly-divisive line, with evangelical Christianity on the Right side supposed to represent fixed stances on abortion, gun rights, traditional marriage, and most recently, a denial of responsibility towards climate change.

Privileged middle-class Christians assume any worldview that deviates from their fundamentalist evangelical roots is a faithless, fearful doomsday scenario painted by agenda-driven liberals who just want the right to do whatever they want.

What I find troubling about the whole situation is that I believe that anyone who reads the Bible without this political filter would find it impossible to be anti-environmentalist.

Ecological stewardship was an essential part of Hebrew spirituality. The natural environment was closely tied with human sin and judgement (Genesis 3:17-19). The vices that plague the human condition, such as greed and pride, destroy not just society, but the natural world in which humanity exists.

Man’s dominion didn’t entitle him to a free pass to exploit the environment. Rather, mankind ought to be responsible for its safeguarding.

Job 38 offers a perspective of man’s place in the natural world: One of many, many things living and non-living under God’s charge. Among the creatures, man’s dominion didn’t entitle him to a free pass to exploit the environment. Rather, mankind ought to be responsible for its safeguarding.

I believe the weight of Scripture is almost undeniable. Please, don’t take my word for it – read and discern for yourself.

But this article is not meant to be about our responsibility towards climate change. I’m here to talk about our witness. The Christianity we choose to evidence in our choices, our declarations, and our social media feeds can misrepresent authentic faith.

First, notice how Erickson presents a false dichotomy between worshipping God and worshipping creation to affirm his anti-environmentalism. Christians have been doing this for ages: Choose God or that girl, God or grades, God or brains, God or trees.

Don’t you dare. There’s a mould for the perfect Christian. Deviate from that and you’re lost.

But choosing God doesn’t mean my automatic rejection of human ethics. Prioritising the human soul doesn’t negate our responsibility for political/social/environmental justice. Pursuing all this isn’t at the expense of proclaiming the Gospel – in fact, environmental stewardship is part of our godly mandate.

Yet – like Paul bemoans in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 – Christians are still fighting for the old gospel tied to political allegiance and social status. This isn’t about green vs non-green, Paul vs Apollos. We all follow Christ. Why the need to divide and take sides?

I believe such political positioning is a defensive reaction to an imagined liberal culture.

Funny how society still bears vestiges of ancient Jewish culture. We might’ve deviated from scriptural definitions (the scapegoat was supposed to be shown mercy and allowed to live), but we dig the idea of feeling righteous at the expense of something helpless.

Most young liberals have found that icon in Trump, but conservatives like to conjure target-boards for their self-righteous stoning. The fictional entity underpinning every anti-conservative political movement is affectionally called the Left.

We need leaders who really care because they really love God – who rise up to embrace their God-given purpose.

We creatively fashion straw-men to destroy and a stereotypical narrative portraying the church as the agent of righteousness that saves the world from doomsday anarchy. Naturally, young Christians (myself included) grow up assuming they need to oppose everything the Left (hippies, queers, new-agers, atheist scientists and tree-huggers) stands for.

In the process, we’ve forgotten what we actually stand for.

Finally, it’s dishonest to use God as an excuse for one’s indifference or ignorance.

GOP Congressman Tim Walberg recently made headlines by publicly declaring his lack of concern for climate change in defence of Trump. “As a Christian, I believes God will take care of it.”

God’s sovereignty might be unhindered by our decisions but it’s absurd to suggest God loves children so it doesn’t matter if they starve in refugee camps, or that God cares for my health so Pagan surgeons should keep their hands off my ruptured spleen. Our environment is no different.

Unquestioned hegemony breeds questionable faith. Apart from the need to think for ourselves, we must understand that God often uses people to carry out His purposes.

It’s precisely because He cares about our broken world that we ought to as well.

The sin revealed by the law wasn’t just about the breaking of rules, but self-justification before God (Romans 3:19).

By casually citing God to justify every political decision, a Christian can reinforce social injustice and misrepresent our Christ to a world He came to save. 

It’s loveless hypocrisy clothed in a veneer of religious authority. It’s what Jesus would’ve called out first.

Maybe there were problems with the Paris agreement. Maybe its unclear what that means for the US economy. Maybe it was inadequate and internationally unenforceable. Maybe there’s a lot wrong with the way Democrats do it.

But playing the God card is ridiculous. We need leaders who work it out like real politicians without the fear-mongering and whitewashed propaganda stirring.

This applies in Singapore as well. I pray we’ll have the discernment and courage to look at our local church in the same light – filtered first and foremost by the Word of God, not the Whim of Man – and to speak up when our comrades champion the wrong gospel. We need to always deliver the truth in love.

It’s not enough to be pragmatic. We need leaders who really care because they really love God – who rise up to embrace their God-given purpose; who understand their place in creation alongside our responsibility to stewardship; who know what it means to be a neighbour to the least of us (Matthew 25:40). And to steward the Earth as we have been called to do.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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Please, help me see

by | 6 June 2017, 3:08 PM

I once believed that one day I’d change the world in a good, unselfish, non-superficial way.

But real life hit me hard.

I was overrun by a deep existential crisis. No, not the kind you feel in the morning when you’ve got tons of work in your in-tray, or if you’ve been dumped. Life itself hurts. The thought, the realisation that no matter how you far you want to fly, you’ll just land in flames.

It sounds crazy to those who’ve never felt the monstrous grip of despair around their neck. Come on! Pick yourself up. Snap out of it, they say.

But no, friend. It’s not so simple. Antidepressants or personal manifestos won’t help.

Words often fail to describe the condition I feel my heart is in. It’s like all you ever want is to see things for what they really are, but you’re haplessly blind.

Something I’d learnt in freshman math: The responsible thing to do when given a formula was to make sure you know where it came from – trace the steps, if you will. This meant hours of exercises in derivation which helped us to appreciate the computational software taught to us in the later years. “Always, always start from first principles,” my professors would say.

Learning the history of science is a big part of understanding science itself.

But still Christ came for me. That must mean something.

I thought I was being courageous by applying this to other things in life. Unveiling the fundamental “whys” and audaciously asking God to tear down everything that didn’t really matter.

To me, it was simply being responsible with my existence. But like a child who never outgrew the annoying habit of questioning everything, there comes a point when no adult, no book, and nothing on Google offered satisfying answers.

When you pray such bold, desperate prayers, you don’t realise you’re asking for agony. You seek a clarity oblivious to the masses. You search harder, dig deeper than others, through modern thought and ancient wisdom alike.

You tell yourself it’s the part of the journey. That it’ll refine your character, make you stronger, make sense eventually.

But you’re exhausted. Crippled. People terrify you. Society disgusts you. Your friends don’t understand.

Those who dare walk this road are repeatedly crushed. They bleed. They trudge for a while, then crawl. Many lose whatever faith they held in their youth. I must have – many, many times over.

Brutal honesty smashes your spirit into a million fragments. You lose all motivation to succeed. You stop caring. You suspend all belief in yourself, humanity and God. Though we feel obligated to make sense of the universe, certain daring minds speculatively concede: The universe is not obligated to make sense to you.

In this closed system, people live their lives as exercises in futility. Most struggle to get by, wearily walking the well-worn path marked out by society. We’re enslaved by systems whose noble first principles are all but forgotten. Technology masters us. The strong exploit the weak. Youthful ideals birthed in ignorance wait to be crushed.

We want freedom, but that’s an illusion. We fight for impossible utopias.

Meaning, exposed as completely subjective and arbitrary, evaporates into absurdity.

Ultimately, we’re enslaved by biology: Survive as long as possible before telomeres excessively shorten and time runs out. Privilege and the best healthcare regime might buy you a few years but it all seems pitifully insignificant. The mechanical cosmos march on unstirred, unaffected by your existence.

As modern thought continues to debate the nature of time, I find myself drawn to a certain point in time and space where Jesus finds a man – a beggar – born blind (John 9).

Even the Apostles made a spectacle of him. They grapple with the age-old problem of Evil, and the need to pin the blame on someone. Jesus corrects them without answering their questions. It’s not about you or your understanding. It’s about God’s will.

Jesus heals the blind man.

But though he came back seeing, he’s still a public spectacle and outcast. They drag him before learned, religious men who grill him with their theological structures. They make it about the Sabbath. They won’t accept his testimony. Insults are hurled at him (John 9:28). They implicate his parents. “You were born in utter sin!” they declare, before casting him out again.

And Jesus comes to him again, healing a deeper blindness.

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
“Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”
Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”
Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. (John 9:35-38)

Likewise, He comes to me. Mysteriously. tenderly. When I find myself alone, begging and cast out, I find Him right there next to me – not as idea or concept, but as a Person who radiates real love, more overwhelming than anything else I’ve ever known. Whether I asked for it myself or not. Whether I understand or not.

He comes to me in ways the most learned, strictly religious, good and powerful people would never understand. I trust that He comes to them too, in ways hidden to me. I’ve learnt that every soul is refined in a unique manner. But all I know is how He finds me, tells me to wash my eyes in the pool Siloam and I come back seeing.

I still can’t make sense of it. I feel cast out. I must have way more than two levels of blindness.

But now, though, I think He’s helping me see. I await the day He unveils one more level, when I can comprehend a new level of His love, truth and grace in all the cosmos.

I really don’t know about this existential thing. Friends tell me it’ll pass. The light will shine again, and I will once again feel the joy that’s eluded me for the longest time. I question whose sin brought me to this dark valley: Mine or someone else’s.

I’ve been here for the longest time.

All I know is how He finds me, tells me to wash my eyes in the pool Siloam and I come back seeing.

I still struggle through many, many sleepless nights. I read strange esoteric things maybe 10 people on earth actually care about. I cannot deal with romance or children. I struggle to believe without tracing first principles. I’m a fish out of water. I have an urge to disappear forever.

I often feel a walking spectacle: For rebellion, singleness, laziness. They think I’m edgy, stumbling and volatile – a walking bag of sin with a warning label. But still Christ came for me. That must mean something.

Yes, everything hurts. More than ever. But for once in my life, through broken lenses for now, I’m starting to see. As I rub my eyes and squint into the distance, there He stands smiling with another ball of mud-spit in hand.

And I know it’s just a matter of time before I walk to the pool again.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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Don’t depend on the church to give you all the answers

by | 22 May 2017, 11:55 AM

Christianity is sometimes described as a metaphorical lens.

C S Lewis wrote: “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”

Granted, there are “shadowlands” where we don’t see quite clearly, but Lewis suggests the clarity with which we see most things – the physical world, human experience, culture, ethics – should give us confidence about what is unseen; it should be a carefully weighed decision.

Lewis here is teaching us to disciple the mind of every believer. The ramifications are huge.

Discipleship implies that intellectual wrestling is not just for evangelism, but is the sacred duty of every Christian – thinkers, scientists, artists steeped in the human condition.

In other words, it’s the duty of every mind to think. So, how exactly do we love God with our minds?

Here, many believers fall short of their responsibility: Open, inquisitive thought is seen as dangerous, and most of us rather depend on an elite bunch of theologians/pastors to join the dots and craft a legalistic creed to which we unquestionably refer.

But in our age of scepticism I cannot overemphasise how important it is to think for yourself, question and form personal faith convictions.

For Christians, this is the working out of your salvation with fear and trembling. For any earnest truth-seeker, this is the necessary path.

Jesus preached a gospel of repentance – the root word of which, metanio, suggests a mental “flip” is intentionally required. Paul was an advocate of proto-scientific methodology too (Romans 12): Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God.

Obedience to truth is not simply loyal resistance to obvious lies. Where philosophical certitude is impossible, the challenge is to consider Christianity inductively, and discern worldviews abductively.

He effectively declared: Don’t just obediently think about the right things. Change the way you think. Test everything. Challenge yourselves to see things in a whole new light. There will be gaps, but your lens should grant you vision to take things in all their vastness, beauty and complexity – a whole new big picture of reality that, to him, revealed God’s fingerprints.

So question all you need. Search till you really see. And don’t depend on the church to give you answers for everything. Seek them yourself.

Outspoken New Atheist Richard Dawkins describes the universe having  “precisely the properties we would expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”.

Dawkins simply begs the question and appeals to his own (misplaced) authority as a biologist. He fails to consider the lens over his eyes, that which leads him to see God in nothing, where a Christian might try to see God in everything.

Religious leaders often fall into the same trap. We build houses of cards and spend vast measures of energy defending them.

The duty of every thinker is to acknowledge their own predisposed lenses, wilfully perceive the world through other lenses and commit to that which offers the most clarity. The honest theist/atheist/agnostic must submit to this.

But while the obedience to truth should be the goal of every mind (1 Peter 1:22), that can only start with the humility to recognise ultimate truth as an ocean of infinite mystery, often beyond empiricism and logic.

This means that while I wouldn’t jump to Dawkins’ hasty conclusions, the frantic search often lands me a despair not far from his. I’m increasingly convinced the absolutely provable truths are existentially shallow. Through them we understand cause and effect, but they’re unable to compel most of us to existentially fulfilling decisions. They won’t fill the void in our souls.

The fundamental truths we look for – which guide and motivate us – are frustratingly beyond proof.

In our postmodern age, obedience to truth is not simply loyal resistance to obvious lies. Where philosophical certitude is impossible, the challenge is to consider Christianity inductively, and discern worldviews abductively.

Refuse to settle for blind faith. Dare to question, wonder or wander.

Such an approach to faith is perfectly logical and scientifically legitimate. Unfortunately with religious faith, most unrealistically demand plain, deductive proof. Such thinkers trudge through life disappointed; meaning evades them.

It doesn’t help that masses of believers live out a “God of the gaps” faith. Because God, they declare over everything they don’t understand. The problem here is that for God to remain big, one must preserve the gaps through apathy or wilful ignorance. As any intellectual adventurer would discover, the gaps become smaller. God gets “squeezed” out.

But it’s a false dichotomy, and biggest reason why the Creationism vs Evolution or religion/cosmology debates are fundamentally futile with regard to religious faith.

If our minds didn’t invest in building or endorsing houses of cards, unbelievers wouldn’t have so much fun blowing them down. If we desire to be strong testimonies and honour the minds given to us, we need to diligently and humbly build on truth.

Fellow sceptic, we have the painful but rewarding privilege of walking the well-worn path of great men and women before us. Don’t be afraid to walk in old footprints, but keep your eyes open and test everything.

Early in the journey, the vision may blur, like that of the myopic man on his way to pick a pair of spectacles at an optics shop. But refuse to settle for blind faith. Dare to question, wonder or wander.

Returning to faith after a season of doubt, G K Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy that the he believed for the same reasons – historical, scientific, philosophical, experiential and cultural – that an earnest atheist or agnostic arrives at their conclusions.

After digging much deeper, he concluded: “I can only say my evidences of Christianity are of the same vivid but varied kind as (the average non-Christian’s) evidences against it. For when I look at these various anti-Christian truths, I simply discover that none of them are true. I discover that the true tide and force of all the facts flow the other way.”

This is why it makes sense to love the Lord our God with all our mind: He stands up to that test, too. The only way to find out is to go there.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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On Joy: The darkest depths of despair, and the dangerous duty of delight

by | 18 May 2017, 4:33 PM

Joy? What joy?

Minds overwhelmed, we rage, avenge and despair. Our fathers turned to booze. These days it’s mantras, happiness summits, self-improvement gurus, personality tests and “professional help”. Our quick fixes only land us in deeper darkness.

These fancy treatments to joylessness only address the symptoms. They numb. But chronic joylessness is in many places now accepted as part of the human condition.

Was it always so? Not for at least one guy, a king named David, who wrote of a starkly different condition in Psalm 16:

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. (Psalm 16:6)
Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices.
(Psalm 16:9)
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
(Psalm 16:11)

Given that the words “joy” and “rejoice” and their derivatives appear at least 150 times in the Bible, I believe God wants all of us to experience joy – not just ephemeral delight, but real, full, lasting joy.

Sometimes religion (or the church) seems part of the problem rather than the solution, calling people out for the “sin” of despair and forcing ministers in the Body to a sorrowful, monastic existence. For God’s glory, they say wearily, willing dreary faces into fake smiles. There’s a sacrament/prayer/discipline for you.

Sweep it under.

But to Jesus, joy was never inconsequential (John 16:20-22, 16:33, 15:11, 17:13).

Joy motivated Jesus to the cross (Hebrews 12:2), the Apostles to martyrdom, Paul to confidently declare “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:20-21), Mother Teresa to the slums of Calcutta, and Christians worldwide to live and die for the Kingdom.

What then is the duty of the Christian: To suffer for righteousness’ sake, or to pursue joy in God?

With the Christian’s ultimate purpose to glorify God, human joy is often sidestepped or neglected by the faithful, in the quest for the semblance of religious piousness. But joy is fundamentally mistaken.

Pursuing pleasure in God is our highest calling. It is essential to all virtue and all reverence.” – John Piper

In The End for Which God Created the World, Jonathan Edwards wrote: “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in.” In modern English, the same sentiment is summarised in the Westminister Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

In the words of John Piper, Pursuing pleasure in God is our highest calling. It is essential to all virtue and all reverence.” Christian Hedonism – as it’s blatantly termed – acknowledges the human need for pleasure and seeks to ground that in God’s glory.

So we need not – dare not – choose between God’s glory and our joy. This joy, however, must come from an enjoyment of God Himself.

John Piper wrote, “if you forsake one, you lose the other. If we do not rejoice in God, we do not glorify as we ought.”

While we’re instructed to rejoice (Philippians 4:4), it doesn’t just manifest by will. Rather, it’s a natural expression of one’s joyful existence. Hence, our obedience demands that joy in God be actively sought.

C S Lewis adds in The Weight of Glory: “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, 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.”

Lewis’ solution to human despair is not to deny our longings, but to intentionally direct them to the one ultimate thing that satisfies (John 7:37). Forget the lesser lovelies; seek the greatest satisfaction, St Augustine would’ve said.

Joy isn’t some bonus icing on the cake Christians can only hope to experience, but the essence and foundation of your entire life in God’s Kingdom.

But for most of us, this isn’t the case. It’s what we deny, starve, or neglect.

In the wake of the passing of two dear members of my extended family within just three weeks, I’m well acquainted with the scenario where life – Christian or otherwise – ends in grief. My thoughts are fixated on the sheer silliness of it all: Shallow comforts, old platitudes, plant arrangements given in the hope of comforting the grieving. All is vanity.

While we’re instructed to rejoice, it doesn’t just manifest by will. Rather, it’s a natural expression of one’s joyful existence.

Jesus acknowledges our condition and first instincts, then shows us His better way. On the cross He doesn’t threaten His enemies; He forgives – aphes (Luke 23:24). No conditions, no questions.

He now calls you and me through the flames. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t lash out. Don’t despair. Trust me. I’ll be with you.”

I’ve learnt that the experience of joy in God is clearly beyond what the sinful heart can accomplish on its own.

As Piper writes, the Christian Hedonist is “a miracle of sovereign grace”.

Here in our joyless brokenness, it’s time to come clean with God. Confess not merely our despair, but our need for Him. Our devotion to lesser lovelies (Romans 6:17), crusading activism and urge to make things right through conventional displays of power. They’ve hurt the Body more than any seed-sowing enemy and uprooted the very joy that sustains our ministry.

Our weapons are not of this world, but have divine power (2 Corinthians 10:4).

Knowing His will, ask boldly (1 John 5:14) for Him to restore the joy of our salvation (Psalm 51:12).

Finally, ask Him to open our eyes see the joy that sprouts among the weeds in our lives, the beauty in brokenness and the mysterious power of a crucified Saviour who teaches us to aphes, to forgive, even to the grave.

His joy – real, full and lasting – will be our strength (Nehemiah 8:10).

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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Redeeming broken dreams: A journey of spiritual motherhood

by | 10 May 2017, 1:29 AM

“Sometimes when I see kids running around, I imagine them as my own,” Deb remarks. She gazes into the distance through moist, red eyes. Coughing out a few girlish giggles, she quickly recomposes herself. “Sorry.”

The first thing that strikes you about Deb is that she is a bundle of contrasts – a melting pot of intense ingredients which maintain their potency even when mixed into the concoction of her personality.

She’s an amalgamation of composure and cheekiness, hope and despair, faith and doubt, victory and failure, strength and weakness. Each pair in tension, yet dancing in short breaths; each so essential to her identity.

Deborah is in her 40s, and she’s single. But though she has no biological children of her own, she considers herself a mother.

It all started from childhood. Reeling from the pain of having an adulterous father (despite having a “gorgeous” mother), her perspective of marriage and family back then was largely negative.

“I resorted to a lot of self-harm and busyness. I fooled myself into thinking I needed to be busy to survive, while avoiding anything to do with romance or family. I didn’t want the kind of family I was born into.”

Everything changed when she received Jesus at 15. “I looked at the loving families in church and thought, ‘Wow! I’d really love to have one.'” She tells us of a lucid dream in which she’d lost a child in her womb. “Soon enough I wanted four.”

“I fooled myself into thinking I needed to be busy to survive, while avoiding anything to do with romance or family. I didn’t want the kind of family I was born into.”

Her maternal instincts quickly kicked in.

During a church mission trip to an orphanage in Chiang Mai, she recalls the pivotal moment where she encountered a kid wailing uncontrollably. As she picked the boy up and cradled him, she felt overwhelmed by a profound sense of purpose, privilege and duty to love and care for children, even if they weren’t her own.

Unfortunately, while it’s not unheard of for singles in Singapore to raise kids by themselves, she foresaw problems. “Children need role models in their lives. Little boys really need fathers.”

Then 24, she was open to the idea of marriage. But while dating opportunities were plentiful (Even till today!, she says, laughing), things just didn’t work out. “They just weren’t the right people. Most had no idea where they were headed in life.”

This may seem strange to most young people today, but Deb prioritised calling over chemistry. She didn’t want to be yoked with a man who wasn’t walking the direction God called.

Unfortunately for her, it was a call which was – romantically speaking – terribly inconvenient. “When God called me to missions, I struggled for two years. I had this recurring dream of running on a treadmill – until I relented.”

And relenting meant giving up the one “ideal” match for her back then.

“In my 20s, I met this amazing guy: Also a teacher, 4 years older, extremely godly, great character, and we clicked immediately.”

She asks for more tissues before recounting stories of fledging romance and playful chivalries between them.

“Those were really fun times. But I couldn’t run forever. One day over the phone he asked me what I could foresee myself doing in the future. His call was here in the schools. When I told him, even while we remained good friends, we knew it was over.”

The breakup shook her badly. In the aftermath, she complained to her mother, blamed her parents and grew angry with God. “I couldn’t understand why he’d plant dreams in my heart, then not allow me to live them out.”

She struggled with self-worth and what it took to be marriageable.

“I saw that people ‘uglier’ or ‘fatter’ were getting married. So it must not just be about appearance.”

Here’s where, she says, she had to make a “faith choice”. “Either God isn’t good, or He is and I just can’t see it yet.”

Consciously choosing the latter, she pleaded with God to help her see.

“Most people in my situation see themselves as Abraham or Sarah, but I see myself spiritually as a kind of Hagar. It hasn’t been the easiest path to walk, but at the end of the day I can say that I know the God who sees me – El Roi.”

She ties a great deal of her initial disappointment to a warped theology: “A lot of modern protestant Christianity assumes that God gives us whatever we want,” she says, warning against buying into the picture-perfect ideal painted by our consumerist society, and sometimes even within churches.

“We need to learn is that having Christ doesn’t mean everything will be okay. In our fallenness, not everything we need will be given to us. When you grasp the truth of our own brokenness, and marvel at how God uses that anyway, you will be free.”

“You have to honour God, even if it hurts. I know that if I were married with kids, I wouldn’t be able to do the work I’m doing now.”

To her, life’s many experiences help to mature our faith. “We cannot ‘kid’ all our lives. As with most things, we must eventually learn to ‘adult’, and ‘adult-ing’ requires us to understand that it’s not just about us.”

“What you do privately for others is your act of love for others. What you do in public is your witness to a watching world. And what you do where nobody sees – that is for God.” Any consideration of marriage for her today has to flow with all three criteria, she says.

Finally we ask how she feels about Mothers’ Day.

She’s taken aback, slightly shaken. But the resolve in her eyes tells us she’s processed these thoughts long ago.

Understanding the weight of her life’s call and current responsibilities, she knows that her odds of marrying are slim. “It’s like every year a little of you dies inside. And it’s not just biological.”

But she wholeheartedly embraces her portion, for she’s convinced it’s God’s best gift for her.

“When God positions you influentially, you have to honour that with all the costs involved, even if it hurts. I know that if I were married with kids, I wouldn’t be able to do the work I’m doing now. Besides, given my position and responsibilities, I’d rather be single than mess up the fabric of everyone’s lives.”

She takes heart that her frequent interaction with younger people in school, church, or mentoring networks gives her the privilege of loving and supporting the next generation – just as how she cradled that little boy in Chiang Mai all those years ago.

“I’ve learnt that mothering isn’t just biological, but spiritual, too.

“It’s funny that I’m able to discuss the joys and stresses of parenting with my cell group. With God and His people, we always have family wherever we are.”

Closer to her heart are her primary school classmate’s two young children, to whom she is godmother. “They’re getting really heavy!” she lets slip another squeaky giggle, before being momentarily distracted by the children still playing outside.

She returns her gaze and warmly smiles.

“But really, the biggest lesson I’ve learnt from them is how to throw yourself fully at something or someone you trust. For me that’s no other than El Roi, the God who sees.”

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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Faith and fitspo: When are we merely worshipping golden calves?

by | 5 May 2017, 9:12 PM

Fitness, once culturally confined to small communities of professional strength sports, bodybuilding, track and field, is now accessible to the white-collar worker, housewife and kid next door. Everyone wants to drink from the fountain of youth, performance, glamour and bragging rights.

But the broth is tainted.

As with most fads, commercialisation and “influencer” culture brings out the worst of the fitness “industry”. Dishonesty, objectification and sexualisation run rampant for the sake of quick sales and “likes”. In this game, lighting, angles, posing and photo editing software can go a long way.

Too many are obsessed with their image. Too many harm their health through drug abuse and eating disorders. Too many blindly slurp from these toxic waters.

For anyone with a desire to care for their bodies, those are clear wrongs. But let’s talk about the grey areas. There are good things in the mix, but it isn’t immediately clear if #fitspo culture – that’s short for fitness inspiration – lines up with our call to discipleship.

The positive: A certain level of health, nutrition and fitness should be the responsibility of every believer because we are instructed to honour God with our bodies.

You can’t go around healing the sick if you’re the one always sick. Bodily woes cascade into mind and spirit. Walking with God wouldn’t be easy if you’re limping breathless.

If you want to be useful for God you must steward your health (1 Corinthians 9:27), and exercise is a big part of it. Quality of life, longevity, increased capacity for good work – that’s all good.

And it doesn’t end with us. Some youth workers get at-risk youths into the gym to liberate (or distract) them from former vices. Some Crossfit gyms take CSR very seriously (Some boxes are even started by churches). There’s sports outreach, and now you can even raise money for charity by working out.

Is your temple more preoccupied with burning fat than incense? When you exercise, are you merely worshipping thy golden calves?

Expressing and honing our physical movement with the right heart can be our act of worship (Romans 12:1), regardless of whether it comes naturally or through a structured fitness regime. Be the best living sacrifice you can be.

But as endurance athletes and Giant Pandas could testify, it’s possible to get drunk with good stuff. Behold the snare of addiction. The boundary between health and obsession quickly blurs.

What is a suitable level of fitness? A healthy one, even?

For serious players, training can last several hours and be extremely exhausting. Nutrition, equipment and memberships can burn holes through pockets. It’s not uncommon for people to skip Sunday worship because they went too hard the day before.

(I’m guilty as charged. My runs also function as personal prayer/worship time, but who am I kidding?)

Jesus-following Fitspos live with an inner tension because while fitness is of some benefit (1 Timothy 4:8) and could be directed “for God’s glory” (Matthew 13:12), it’s often self-serving.

Vanity.

One can’t help but wonder how a championship-winning physique could ever “glorify” God more than a dad-bod. Insta-famous “fitness” ladies often post post-workout butt selfies with a caption: “Your body is a temple.” This is a misdirected witness.

Is your temple more preoccupied with burning fat than incense? When you exercise, are you merely worshipping thy golden calves? Temples – no matter how shabby, flabby or skinny-fat – should intentionally, passionately and reverently host the presence of God.

Every Christian must be convicted that our current existence is inevitably tied to futility, vanity and meaninglessness. Everything is vanity.

But by grace, our actions can be redeemed.

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes wasn’t calling for readers to completely give up activities that are transient – or we’d end up literally doing nothing in this life. Rather, he commends the sober realisation that God is the only worthwhile pursuit.

The duty of man, therefore, is to remember that all is from Him, through Him and to Him (Romans 11:36), doing everything for His glory (1 Corinthians 6:20). Only in Him do we live, move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

Or as  Jimmy Peña, author, exercise physiologist and founder of PrayFit Ministries put it: “Grace removes the burden of trying to perfect a body that won’t last and yet grace is the reason to honour God with it every day that it does.”

So we must be be aware of the fine line between simply doing things claiming it’s “for God” and doing what He actually wants us to do. After all, great evils have been committed in His Name.

In an age where sportspersons, celebrities and politicians so readily trace the sign of the cross or kiss the ground on bended knee, just about anything can be done “for God’s glory”. But we can only speculate if they’re really being obedient stewards to God, or using God as an excuse for self-glorification.

In one of the Bible’s most tragic narratives, King Saul disobeyed God’s direct instruction to completely destroy Amalek. Though he reasoned that the best oxen, calves and lambs were for sacrifice, God called him out through Samuel:

“For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has also rejected you from being king.” (1 Samuel 15:23)

Does your ego swell with praises and complements from others? Are you unable to really, truly direct it back to God (Proverbs 16:18-20)? Has ability or aesthetics replaced God as your measure of worth or identity (Romans 8:15-16)? Are your prayers more comparison- or communion-focused?

The danger of passion is that it can easily spin into idolatry and pride. Watch and pray, because the slip into self-obsession is subtle and gradual (Matthew 26:41). 

The key here is to invite God into your fitness goals and training. As His child, your duty is to bring Him glory on His terms.

Our lifestyle should enable or enhance our witness for Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20). Strict adhesion to dietary plans or twice-a-day training sessions should not prevent us from loving, serving and communing with others in and out of the Body.

Our lifestyle should enable or enhance our witness for Jesus.

Jesus warns us to identify false prophets by their fruit (Matthew 7:15): The good stuff is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). In our endeavours, are we inspiring others to the right fruits?

If you’re uncertain where your heart really lies, it’s time to ask yourself the hard questions. And when the sweat is wiped clean, will you live to lift another day?

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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In defence of modern worship songs

by | 2 May 2017, 2:09 PM

A current trend in Christian circles is to put popular worship songs under the “theological microscope” and come up with a list of songs to cull from services.

Most of these voices conveniently conclude that “old hymns” are better, and restate the need to worship in Spirit and in truth – true, I concur. But without elaboration it remains a trite and unhelpful, wall-building aphorism.

Let’s take the conversation deeper by looking at some common objections to contemporary Christian music (CCM) and ask ourselves the hard questions. Most stone-throwers fail to realise that when their own preferences are screened through their own microscopes, the same cracks persist.

WHAT DO CRITICS SAY ABOUT MODERN WORSHIP MUSIC?

1. Modern worship is overly repetitive and emotional

This isn’t really fair. Show me how that that 1800s hymn with 12 stanzas isn’t repetitive. Tell the four living creatures (Revelation 4:8) to control themselves, when day and night they can’t stop singing.

We’re singing about our Creator here! Is it so wrong to repeat points that resonate, such as acknowledging the Love that “never fails, never gives up, and never runs out on me”.

While we should encourage people to pursue a holistic, multi-faceted view of God, we cannot force them to constantly paint a complete theology in every song or set. I once sat through a worship set where, mid-way, someone decided to read Psalm 119. All of it. All 176 verses. It really didn’t work.

Meanwhile, other modern songs are flamed for being excessively, confusingly literary. (Sample: Why should “my anchor hold within the veil”? Answer: Hebrews 6:19.)

Too simple? Too deep? It’s all good. Even Peter was confounded by what Paul wrote (2 Peter 3:16). It doesn’t mean one is better or worse than the other – it’s just different ways of appreciating the one same Truth.

What we need is balance: We’re called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Luke 10:27). So we should embrace emotion – but only that which is guided by our minds. Don’t scoff at those who shed some tears – they probably aren’t crocodiles (Matthew 15:8-9) or playing with onions.

2. Modern worship is musically lame

It’s okay to have an eye/ear for beauty. David, the King, is better known these days for his lyrics than his royal decrees.

While we should strive for truth, communal engagement and excellence, artistic impulse cannot be streamlined into cookie-cutters. Don’t out reins on authentic human expression.

There’s also the issue of people being too judgmental – musical snobs. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. It’s just a matter of taste, not the abominable sin. Five percent of people derive absolutely zero pleasure or emotional response from music. A small portion are objectively tone deaf.

It’s okay to have an eye/ear for beauty. David, the King, is better known these days for his lyrics than his royal decrees.

If that’s not you, expand your repertoire and musical palate and you’ll find plenty of powerful CCM songs, powerfully worded, brilliantly composed and elegantly performed. I personally dig Rend Collective, Gungor, Kings Kaleidoscope and Ascend the Hill, among others.

Whatever it is, look for music which helps you connect with God. Write and sing your own songs if you like.

3. Modern worship is self-focused, entitled and narcissistic

Oceans is the scapegoat of choice. They say it’s not about us, but God. They reason that if it’s about God, certain words become taboo. The self-centredness of a song is meticulously calculated with every occurrence of “me”.

I’m not saying your convictions are invalid – some songs are absolutely focused on self-gain over God’s glory – but being human, we inevitably look through human eyes, think with human minds and feel with human souls. So the personal experience of God is the weight that connects the a priori prepositions of the Bible to a posteriori reality in our lives.

This testimony, paired with the blood of the Lamb, overcomes the evil one (Revelation 12:11). Should we silence it?

John Piper paints a beautiful, powerful view of God. God is most concerned with His own glory, but most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him. It’s our holy duty, therefore, to maximise our fulfilment in Him. Completing the cycle, He gives us exactly that: His best gift to us, is Himself.

Yes, it’s completely about God, but He makes it about us too. Both are fundamentally, intimately tethered. His breath is in us. Our Saviour revealed Himself as a human so our human eyes could see His glory in a way we can grasp.

Discern carefully but humbly, that we don’t throw baby with bathwater.

4. Modern worship is theologically questionable/wrong/divisive

Some lyrics are unbiblical by all counts – don’t sing them!

But most things are debatable. The modern church is quick to label: Nebulous Trinitarianism, Calvinist, classic Penal Substitutionary Atonement, God is my boyfriend. We criticise soteriology, eschatology, politics and everything else that doesn’t line up with our institutionalised cookie-cutters.

I respect your allegiance to truth, but don’t expect everyone to have the same view of it.

Songwriters come from various theological and cultural backgrounds. Even if Scripture is forever true, the cultural vocabulary of the times changes. For some, sloppy wet kisses aren’t as gross as others might find them.

I know some churches have stopped singing Matt Redman’s Blessed Be Your Name because of its refrain: You give and take away.

When it’s about religion, everything is controversial, because everything is personal.

Described by God Himself as “righteous”, we sang Job’s words. Unfortunately, Job 1:21 was based on an incomplete, untrue revelation of God. God, they declare, is good. Unlike those Calvinists, they believe God merely allowed Satan to take Job’s possessions, family and health.

But how do we make sense of verses where God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, or caused an evil spirit to torment Saul? It might not be how we’d phrase it, but it’s how the “inspired”  biblical writers did.

When it’s about religion, everything is controversial, because everything is personal. The key here is not to be close-minded on theology, but to take the opportunity to wrestle with lyrics and test them against Scripture before moving in conviction. Don’t sing blindly – but don’t stay silent without reason.

We need the grace to put down that stone, and instead apply our heart and mind.

I long for the day we’re all schooled by God Himself. Till we see finally hear the four living creatures in their eternal refrain, we honour God in best way we know: By fixing our eyes and ears on His Son.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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I thought Science was supposed to point to Truth – not march in the opposite direction

by | 28 April 2017, 10:03 AM

In the wake of the Trump administration’s defunding of scientific research and ignorance-based policies, the people stirred. Like the women who marched before, Earth Day provided the clarion call for the scientific Resistance.

To the scientist (professional or hobbyist), self-proclaimed nerd, climate change activist and devoted follower of IFLS – I’ve long considered myself one of your brethren.

But I cannot bring myself to march with you.

While I’m most impressed with the witty posters hogging the headlines, I question if those marching for science have any idea what they’re really marching for. It’s almost artistic, but it all seems tremendously … unscientific.

Call me cynical, but in this post-truth culture, “scientific” voices now sound like they’re driven not by the quest for truth, but by personal agenda.

All that is happening now in the name of Science runs against the very ideals of scientific philosophy.

The empirical method was a sword to cut through myth, mystery and deception. Not to rebel or destroy, but – like sonar in a fog – to clear our consciences that we may follow it with more conviction.

Science should neither rewrite our mission nor recalibrate our compass. It simply fills in the details, where we once believed the Kraken roamed, ships fell off the Earth’s edge and the moon was an evil enchantress.

Free from political or philosophical ideals, science was an arena where everyone played by the rules of rationality. But while truth is the undisputed goal of science, science doesn’t necessarily point to truth.

A scientist must be prepared for perceived truth to be constantly challenged, revised and theorised.

While truth is the undisputed goal of science, science doesn’t necessarily point to truth. The power of science was that it bore no allegiance to a worldview, only to reason. It followed evidence.

Remember, when you were young, the accepted wisdom was that egg yolks were unhealthy? That’s been refuted; the consensus changes every couple of years, but over time our understanding grows. The same goes for theories of gravity, evolutionary thought and models of our most beloved atoms.

What we learnt in school wasn’t set in stone. (Poor Pluto!)

The power of science was that it bore no allegiance to a worldview, only to reason. It followed evidence. It can be challenged by anyone, anyone, with a strong reasonable case. But the best scientists acknowledged a philosophical edge to reason, beyond which even science had no authority. They played by the rules.

Apart from the limitations of good science, we forget that science, like anything else devised by humans, can be abused.

Most don’t realise that the strongest criticism of the scientific community came not from the Trump administration or uneducated conservatives, but from scientists themselves.

If you know the game, you can play it: Research can be cherry-picked. Stats can be or manipulated to deceive pseudo-statisticians with blind faith in p-values. Even the peer-review system is troubled.

Academics facing great pressure to publish are at risk for misconduct, lest they lose their tenure or funding. Capitalists from large pharmaceuticals and technological firms have been known to invent problems/illnesses to which they have novel solutions – that come at a price. Criminals aware of forensic methodology can cover their tracks.

Add in the hype of social media and you have a recipe for disaster. Think 30-second Instagram videos talking about the latest diet fad or oxygenated water “proven” by Science, absorbed by opiate masses who speak the language but don’t fundamentally understand the game.

We all lose. Science as a whole loses credibility among the masses while earnest scientists lose vital support for their research and political influence. A fierce battle to “fix” the system is being fought internally, but what we have now is a sensational scientific community far from its original ideals.

But the recent march for science highlights a greater irony: Truth is nowhere in sight. Instead, science is now a political loudspeaker in a scientifically illiterate world.

The danger is in inflated perceptions of our own intelligence. In our information age we think we’re scientific (thanks, Google!) … but we’re not. We’ve been schooled in rhetoric – not science.

Despite “science” hogging the headlines and the latest “proof” going viral on social media, ours is a largely a culture of zero intellectual rigour, with Science (intentional caps) attaining an unquestionable religious cult status. The American physicist Richard Fenyman called this “cargo cult science“.

More people speculate whether Darwin re-embraced Christianity on his deathbed than those who’ve ever read Origins. The same goes for other prominent personalities.

In our information age we think we’re scientific (thanks, Google!) … but we’re not. We’ve been schooled in rhetoric – not science.

There’s good science (objective and honest), and bad (science fiction, scientific fraud, sensationalism and agenda-pushing). Bad science, like fake news and speculation, can solidify subjective worldviews through confirmation bias and other cognitive traps.

While real scientists should feel compelled to fight against ignorance, it seems their cause has been hijacked by something far more insidious: Scientism.

Defined by philosopher Tom Sorell as “putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture”, scientism is symptomatic of intellectual pride. To its supporters, Science is the only source of knowledge.

Besides being epistemologically weak and unjustifiable, when such dogma is expressed in popular scientific literature, the lines between philosophical speculation and evidence-based science are blurred. Scientism is killing real science.

“The health of science is in fact jeopardised by scientism, not promoted by it. At the very least, scientism provokes a defensive, immunological, aggressive response from other intellectual communities, in return for its own arrogance and intellectual bullyism. It taints science itself by association.” – Physicist Ian Hutchinson

So clearly, it’s not just policy we marching against. While many truly march (ironically) for science, others claiming intellectual superiority march against an entire system of politics, ethics, religion and culture labelled conservative, bigoted and outdated.

They’re really marching for entitlement – and the chance to silence the opposition.

People mostly only like “science” or become “scientific” when it supports their views.

Whether in Buzzfeed, the church, humanist literature, and (ironically) in peer-reviewed journals, the science of science communication reveals a psychological phenomenon: Studies suggest that increased knowledge and literacy don’t necessarily result in the same universal “correct” conclusion.

What psychologists call “the backfire effect” shows why marchers who march for scientific literacy march in vain.

It seems that despite the unshakable faith of great thinkers before us, scepticism isn’t always a single, clear road. Instead, it gives us a nitro boost to blaze along the roads we’re already committed to.

So the next time you feel like sharing a link with a headline along the lines of “science says”, “science proves” or “because Science”, stop. Blind sharing and poster-waving reinforces the post-truth culture that silences the cause your brethren march tirelessly for. They will march for many more years.

If you believe in real science, you have a duty to truth.

And there is no room for charlatanism in science; you must personally honour the rules you champion.

Read the fineprint. Do the research. Verify method, and if conclusion flow from results. Explore similar research with contradictory findings. It’s your responsibility to rigorously sieve real science from sensationalist propaganda, to present data as it is, no matter how vapid or uninspiring.

So we start today by checking our own patronising eyes for planks, and clothing ourselves with sobriety. Then we let Truth – scientific or otherwise – speak for itself.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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How separate should Church and State be?

by | 26 April 2017, 11:15 AM

Some people say the church’s vocal stance towards public policy and legislation is an adulteration of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus, after all, transformed culture bottom-up, rather than top-down.

In his recent book, American author Rod Dreher presents The Benedict Option as the last resort for the Western church. Because the cultural war has been lost, he says, Christianity faces inevitable decline unless it drastically changes its strategy to largely withdraw the church from engagement with the world.

Christians must “read the signs of the times, abandon hope for a political solution to our civilisation’s problems, and create resilient spiritual centres” where real, powerful truth is preserved, he argues. Live to fight another day.

But is ascetic monasticism misplaced zeal? When you have salt and light, but hidden away. When you’re not in the world, and also not of it.

Think of the boundaries of the practice of Christianity in Singapore. For the most part we enjoy great religious freedom in our homeland, as long as we respect the borders drawn by our government: Don’t offend other groups, don’t be a public nuisance and don’t be violent.

Secularised nations like ours propose the complete separation of Church and State as a peaceful, constructive and fair political approach. But going with the flow would imply the following:

1. Faith (specifically Christianity) should not be political in any way
2. That when you do engage in politics, you can neglect your faith, a fundamental part of your identity
3. Only politically-correct interpretations of faith should be practiced in our time

FAITH AND POLITICS: DEBUNKING THE MYTHS

MYTH 1: FAITH SHOULDN’T BE POLITICAL

Maybe some faiths aren’t political, but ours is – highly – albeit not in the way most political movements are.

The first political premise of Christianity is of loyalty: Jesus is Lord. Christians are to submit to worldly authority and render to Caesar accordingly (Mark 12:17), but their loyalty to God and their fellow man trumps that of any nation, political party or ideology (Matthew 22:26-40).

Simply put, the kingdom of God is built on a radically different set of values and rules than every other society. It doesn’t seek its own power, but speaks for the least of humanity (just read through the Beatitudes in Matthew 5). It doesn’t depend on government policy to effect societal change.

Where it gets tricky is the fact that many politically-charged issues we face today aren’t explicitly mentioned in the Bible. No, Jesus never spoke specifically about climate change or abortion laws – but He did tell us to make a difference for God’s kingdom.

Because we are called to submit both to God and the authorities, Christians must know how to navigate societal norms to effectively act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

As “exiles” in the world (1 Peter 1:1), we are to heed Jeremiah’s instruction to the exiled Jews living in Babylon. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).

Neither does the Bible give us the option of inaction. The unwillingness of the Edomites to help Israel was rebuked (Obadiah 1:11). Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking in a BBC interview, noted that every voice matters in a democracy, even when choosing between two evils.

Because we are called to submit both to God and the authorities, Christians must know how to navigate societal norms to effectively act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly (Micah 6:8). And effectiveness is something worth thinking hard about; for instance, learning about global hunger might compel us to donate regularly out of charity, but if we had the means to invoke real political justice, a multiplier effect brings grace to thousands more families.

MYTH 2: ENGAGING IN POLITICS MEANS LEAVING YOUR FAITH AT HOME

It’s easy to hold on to this perspective when faith is treated as a personal hobby or interest group. But it’s a different story when faith forms the core of our identity, purpose and values.

We see that Jesus Himself was not afraid of the political implications of His words. There was a timely element to it (John 2:4, Mark 7:36) but he never denied His identity. He knew admitting to be the Messiah would eventually get him killed, but did so anyway.

Jesus even organised a couple of demonstrations of His own, such as entering Jerusalem on a baby ass (to promote a kingdom of peace), multiplying the five loaves and two fish (idea of divine providence), and his outrage in the temple (civil governance and taxation shall not corrupt God’s kingdom values).

Thankfully for us, most of us don’t have to die for confessing our identities in Christ like the apostate priests in SilenceSo don’t be afraid to demonstrate as Martin Luther King Jr did for the cause of abolitionism.

How have Christians here in Singapore tried to get their point across? What is the church known for? Many say the church’s unpopular conservative stance on LGBT issues, gambling and media censorship effectively undermine its effectiveness in reaching people for Christ.

Bible-bashing and silencing the voices of the minority in the name of religion are certainly not strategies that Jesus Himself would’ve adopted.

But remember: The Bible doesn’t give us the option of intentional indifference. We can’t sacrifice our convictions just to win people over.

The problem is how people of faith articulate their beliefs for the sake of influencing public policy. Bible-bashing and silencing the voices of the minority in the name of religion are certainly not strategies that Jesus Himself would’ve adopted. More often than not, He spoke for the marginalised, even fellow prisoners on death row. 

He never tried to legislate aspects of morality, but explained and reasoned with others. In fact, He spoke against religious leaders who tried to preserve traditional Jewish moral laws.

However, He understood the “heart” behind the law and communicated religious truths through common vernacular in the form of parables, only quoting Scripture among Jews and Satan himself. Without writing off sin, He showed that perfect love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).

We must learn to do likewise.

MYTH 3: SIMPLIFY YOUR FAITH SO OTHERS WILL TOLERATE IT BETTER

The current “clash” of worldviews is expected and beneficial only if we respond well. One response frequently adopted by faith groups in Singapore is to neglect or tone down controversial tenants or theology for a much more moderate, politically-correct version easily tolerated by other groups.

Writer Jessa Crispin once said: “We’ve forgotten that for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible.” She was speaking of Feminism, but there’s a faith parallel too, with some Christian thinkers noticing the church’s slip into intellectual laziness, undermining its effectiveness.

In a call against the reduction of orthodox Christianity to a “gospel minimum”, theologian BB Warfield wrote: “A truth not worth defending very soon comes to be seen as a truth not worth professing.” Faith is simple, but shouldn’t be simple-minded.

Thankfully, as Christians, our God doesn’t need defending. He may always not be popular, but we need not fear. He is truth, and we must pursue truth that speaks for itself, not settle for frolicking in feel-good aphorisms.

“A truth not worth defending very soon comes to be seen as a truth not worth professing”: BB Warfield.

All of which suggests that as Christians and citizens, we need not shy away or fear the political process. Speak up when you have to, but with gentleness and respect. His Spirit will give you the words (Matthew 10:20).

The sovereignty of God often rests in the hands of the weak and ordinary. The Benedict Option achieves nothing. We need to make a prayerful stand: Firm and wise. If you are willing, He can and will use you to bring about redemption unlike anything ever before: Justice and mercy, hope and love. Through each one of us, nations will be moved.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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What the Resurrection means to the 21st century believer

by | 13 April 2017, 11:45 AM

Life is fragile. Its flickering flame can be quenched by freak accident or slowly exhausted by the siege of terminal illness. But don’t be fooled: Youth, health, education, career are illusions. Time catches up eventually, whether or not you behaved good, studied hard or married right …

Then Jesus shakes everything up with the Resurrection.

It’s timely, because the Resurrection addresses a timeless human problem: Existence will someday cease. The good news: Death isn’t the end. The bad news: The monster of death still lurks, and futility is its hellish roar.

How does one live meaningfully in the face of inevitable death?

The historicity is rigid: The Resurrection is either true or false. You might not be able to explain or support it with flawless philosophical certitude, but what you ultimately believe about it makes all the difference in your ephemeral life.

Belief. Unfortunately, that’s where most of us fail – understandably – because it’s so, so hard to believe. Weary with the old narrative of pain, disease and death, we straddle the fence hopeful, but fearful of where hope might lead.

These few weeks, I’ve watched my once-spirited aunt fight a long-drawn battle with cancer.

It’s mostly retrograde. Apart from her body reaching new all-time lows, I also observed the harrowing ordeal of a faith flung into the furnace. These days, she’s a shadow of her former self. She cries. She’s anxious. Worn out. She grabs our hands a little tighter than before and, with each laboured breath, the elephant in the room grows.

As we leave her each night, we pray. Her eyes often remain closed for a few moments thereafter – weariness, medication, or quiet resignation to the grand futility of it all, I can’t tell.

How does one live meaningfully in the face of inevitable death?

Suffering raises hard questions. Does God hear us? Does He even care? Is He so cruel to design a cosmos in which the path to redemption takes us through the most debilitating, hellish pain? Hospital wards are echo chambers for the screams of futility.

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

John’s gospel presents us with two examples of faith. There’s Peter and John – fishermen who believed almost instantly because they came and saw (John 1:39). Then there’s Thomas, that man of little faith (John 20:25).

In typical ecclesiastical fashion, popular exhortation tells us to be like Peter and John, not Thomas. Just believe.

But instead of seeing in “doubting” Thomas a caricature to be mocked, we need to see that Thomas represents the typical 21st century human.

In fact, with his level of cynicism, he could’ve well been Singaporean! (Kidding. Maybe.)

In other words, we are Thomas. A sceptical education and real brokenness leave their mark. Like Thomas, we think we’d live simpler lives without the Resurrection. But Resurrection found Thomas in his doubt. Jesus breathed into his chains and they became wings.

Doubt was merely a symptom of a mind that knew the implications of truth: If Jesus did rise from the dead, then Thomas knew his life had to change radically, whether he liked it or not; whether he understood or not. He didn’t grab the gospel in desperation. It grabbed – transformed – him.

Thomas even went on to proclaim the boldest Christological statement recorded in the gospels: “My Lord and my God!” To call Jesus God – not Master, Messiah, Teacher – was something no other Apostle managed to put so clearly.

As we grapple with the Resurrection in our brokenness, Thomas’ big question confronts us afresh: Do we really believe in a risen Christ?

Maybe. A little? It’s easy to die for something, perhaps harder to live fully for something. But to reverse the natural order of life/death is an absurd mockery of our survival instincts.

We settle for the slushy middle ground, focusing on the easy parts of the gospel: Feed, heal, love. At the core of Christian living lies the cross, to which our sins were nailed and destroyed once and for all. Amazing grace.

Jesus lived and died for you, His beloved. Now He’s back with holes in His hands.

That’s all good, but where does Resurrection fit in? A song at church each week, perhaps. You know it’s marginalised, pushed to the fringes of our daily exercise of faith. Abstract, like the sparkle on the crest of a crashing wave. Like Thomas, who refused belief without real sensory experience, we can only wonder about the blessedness that comes with blind belief.

That’s where we’re wrong.

We must choose either belief or disbelief.

It’s no easy choice. We look at dim mirrors. But as Thomas discovered, thanks to the Resurrection, belief doesn’t have to be blind.

Lamenting in hospital every night often makes me forget that most of my aunt’s life has been a miracle. She’s had cancer before – when young – along with the whole slew of accompanying ailments, each with the potential to herald in the grim reaper. But she’s always hoped in God.

The odds are never in her favour, but with her final breaths she still proclaims God’s grace because she knows His goodness. A life lived for God cannot be measured in years. This episode’s especially trying. But through the weeks, we wonder at how this shadow-of-her-former-self can stare death in the eye and find peace.

Even within, I wrestle hard with how God made me: Mind restless, soul never satisfied, spirit perpetually in fragments. Isolated and constantly tormented. “Dissociated,” says a certain counsellor. Well-meaning friends sometimes suggest medication, or a girlfriend.

Maybe you wrestle too, in uniquely terrible ways. It all seems dreadfully cruel, but what if your Creator knows exactly what He’s doing?

He’s already lived and died for you, His beloved. Now He’s back with holes in His hands. We find ourselves standing alongside Thomas, facing a risen Jesus. Reach, touch, cry if you must.

Your scepticism, brokenness and anguish, when submitted to God, are ideal ingredients for powerful redemption.

Belief is not merely a line to be crossed, but the step-by-step walking of a path towards Jesus.

That’s why I believe vestiges of death still remained on Jesus’ glorified body. That you may believe and have life. He speaks through wounds and scars (including His own) so all may see through Resurrection eyes. But more so, He shows us that God often works (metaphorically) through those carrying crosses.

Now His Spirit whispers to yours, “My child, where there is pain, death and despair, pray with your eyes open. I’m here, and I’m risen.”

Resurrection empowers you to stand against the rising tide of sin and grave, to dance to the roar of futility with holes in your hands, to seize the hope that accompanies despair, and see that even though death so frustratingly abounds, death isn’t the end.

The belief Jesus demanded of Thomas wasn’t purely intellectual. To the ancient Greeks, belief implied “throwing ourselves” at something. Despite existential uncertainty, Resurrection demands a decision: Deny it and life resumes. Seize it and it changes everything.

Resurrection empowers you to stand against the rising tide of sin and grave, to dance to the roar of futility with holes in your hands, to seize the hope that accompanies despair, and see that even though death so frustratingly abounds, death isn’t the end.

Thomas knew. And boy did he believe!

He didn’t go back to the desirable Roman lifestyle of gladiators, baths, lavish spas, families and children. He saw all that and walked in the opposite direction. The story goes that he preached a risen Christ to as far as India, where churches today still bear his faith legacy, and where he was ultimately martyred.

For ourselves, belief cannot be one-off.

Resurrection means your plans are continually wrecked, your compass constantly shaken, and your spirit perpetually thirsty for the only One who satisfies. 

It’s rarely comfortable, but it’s the only life that doesn’t echo futility’s screams. Like Jesus, you don’t carry those vestiges in vain. Like Thomas, your chains become wings; death is not your end.

This Easter, regardless of what you make of original sin, how literally you read the Bible, how you stumble or how your heart bleeds, ask God for the faith to not just recount the event that changed the course of history forever but to truly, courageously, boldly believe.

To search far enough to make up your mind, but not fall off the edge.

To throw yourself in and not look back, because the risen Prince of Peace holds our hand as we follow His footprints to the grave and beyond.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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What do bunnies and eggs have to do with the Resurrection again?

by | 7 April 2017, 4:50 PM

It’s that time of the year again, when bunnies come out of hiding and people start painting eggs. All in the name of fun, they say. It’s Easter after all, and what better way to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour than to have a little fun?

Sounds harmless, doesn’t it? I mean, God did institute an elaborate system of celebratory feasts for the Israelites after bringing them out of Egypt (Leviticus 23).

The church’s celebration of Easter coincides with the third of seven Jewish feasts (Firstfruits) which commemorates God’s providence by offering the first (best) harvest of the season back to Him. Based on the Jewish calendar, Christ was crucified on the Passover, buried on Unleavened Bread and raised on Firstfruits (and sent His Spirit on Pentecost).

Unfortunately, our celebration of Firstfruit-fertility has gone somewhat off tangent.

It seems that vestiges of paganism inform the seasonal Easter festivities. The term “Easter” itself is never mentioned in the Bible. It, however, strongly suggests that sometime during the Romanisation of Christianity, the term was borrowed from the Chaldean goddess of fertility or “Queen of Heaven”.

Her Babylonian name “Ishtar” sounds undeniably similar to the church’s sacred day, but strangely, the bunnies and eggs were nowhere to be seen.

Those very symbols implicate another fertility goddess – this time from Germany – with an “Easter” homonym for a name. Eostre’s symbols were – you guessed it – eggs and bunnies (for their huge litters).

And it doesn’t even end with eggs and bunnies: Many elements of current church tradition can be traced to ancient Chaldean, Babylonian and Eastern religion.

When running for the office of Roman Emperor, Constantine allegedly had a dream in which God instructed him to paint Chi-Ro (the two first Greek letters of “Christ”) on his soldiers’ shields. He won a decisive battle as a result, and when he finally assumed the throne, he upheld allegiance to the Christian faith while (ironically) tolerating and publicly embracing several aspects of pagan religion.

Few today would be so bold as to call it “idolatry”, as long as we remember our first love. Symbols only possess the power we ascribe to them.

Some scholars propose that Constantine was gravely confused. Specifically, he mistook Jesus for the then-popular cult of Sol Invictus or Roman sun god, and adopted a fusion faith involving elements of both, even having them printed on official coins. Bearing the stamp of the Roman Empire, this distorted Romanised version of Christianity was given the empire’s support to proliferate, and after several ecumenical councils and reformations evolved into the Church of today.

Whether for personal (faith convictions), political (populist) or practical reasons (prevent anarchy), the fundamental problem was this elaborate integrated faith – the one we think we know – was essentially different from the one the Apostles and early Christians lived and died for – the one Jesus started.

Is this cause for despair? Can God still use what humanity fundamentally messed up to draw mankind back to Himself? For the frustrated believer, take heart, for our present circumstance echoes the Biblical narrative. With God, despair is always accompanied by hope.

I suppose it seems harmless to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection with the common symbols around us, even if these symbols were previously adopted by other faiths.

I mean, should we stop drinking water or baptising in water, since water is symbolically tied to several other religions too? Shall we cease Sunday worship since it was a perversion of the original Sabbath, a sneaky takeover of the Chaldean day of worship for Sol Invictus? (Thanks again, Constantine.)

Few today would be so bold as to call it “idolatry”, as long as we remember our first love (Revelation 2:4). Symbols only possess the power we ascribe to them. Some presume that most people in our churches today don’t even realise these links to Paganism, and can therefore participate with a clear conscience without fear of stumbling (1 Corinthians 8).

But grace always comes with truth, for without truth grace is mere indifference borne of ignorance.

Ultimately, the truth is Easter is a wolf-in-sheepskin commemoration of another god – one commonly associated with temple prostitution. Which means that though acting in good faith, many of us have been deceived, the leaven secretly sprinkled into our mix through unquestionable tradition reinforced by Papal, Episcopal or pastoral authority.

But the real gospel must transcend culture, no? Moderns tells us that it’s about intent, even if blindsided, and besides, God knows our hearts, right?

Wrong!

God has judged before, and it’s not pretty. He searches and knows your innermost being. He sees your insistence on self-defined “spirituality” as an indicator of your stubborn idolatry – the desire to come to Him on your terms. We worship an image and call it “God”. Might as well get smashed at Zoukout, eat a rare bug, or burn a forest in dedication it to YHWH.

God’s principle of engagement is this: Come as you are, but on my terms.

Paul explicitly warns believers of mere participation in demonic rituals, not because an they have power in and of themselves, but because believers are not to have any association with demons (1 Corinthians 10:14-21).

In Deuteronomy 12, God prescribes the exact way He wants to be worshipped, and guess what: He’s especially brutal towards the “fusion” worship customs involving other gods.

“(Of the Canaanites) take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? – that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.” (Deuteronomy 12:30-32)

So while it may be tempting to buy into the hype this Easter, let’s be mindful that God specifically doesn’t want to receive pagan-style worship. Though everyone else plays along, He calls you, His child, to be holy (Leviticus 20:26, 1 Peter 1:16).

I’m not saying we stop all celebrations at once, but we must, like Daniel, be intentional in not defiling ourselves in the presence of a wider culture that doesn’t know God. That starts by getting rid of the bunnies and eggs, and stop celebrating it in any way but that which is about remembering the resurrection of the Messiah.

So while it may be tempting to buy into the hype this Easter, let’s be mindful that God specifically doesn’t want to receive pagan-style worship.

Beyond that, find your compass in Spirit and truth. This Lent, don’t just go through the motions. Watch and pray. Question everything.

In a world (and mainline church) so steeped in religious half-truth and ignorance, we look hopefully to the One who challenged true worshippers to worship in Spirit and truth (John 4:23). I pray we’ll have the grace to pull ourselves away from all we think we know and hold so dear, to dig deep in search of God’s heart, to hear the true Wind and follow wherever it blows (John 3:8).

A blessed Easter Resurrection Sunday to you. No bunnies needed – only love, joy and peace in our living Saviour.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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Is the Christian with complaints a man without faith?

by | 3 April 2017, 12:25 PM

Happy praise anthems dominate the repertoires of churches worldwide, usually the first song in a worship set. Take these lines written by acclaimed Christian singer-songwriter Chris Tomlin:

Well I could sing unending songs
Of how you saved my soul
And I could dance a thousand miles
Because of your great love

That’s all fine … except on the days “joy” eludes you. When having to mouth the words feels like you’re wringing your spirit for every last drop of faith. There is no joy – only darkness, disappointment and hypocrisy. We’ve all been there, some more often than others.

You could say that song captures just one aspect of Chris’ faith and ought to be considered in context of his wider nuanced experience of faith (i.e. the whole album). Sure – but judging by the songs we choose to sing, most Christians just aren’t doing it.

Compare our happy repertoires to the hymns of old and you’d notice the gradual transition from Kingdom to self, scripture to feeling, and sorrow to happiness. One study successfully quantified the transition by comparing the positive-negative proportion of lyrics between old and new songs. The old hymns were pretty balanced, but modern chart toppers are pretty much pure sunshine.

How positive are modern Christian songs compared to the hymns of old? Source: FiveThirtyEight.com

Believers of every epoch will express their faith in cultural vernacular. But this isn’t just about staying relevant. Instead, it reflects and propagates the simplistic notion that the faithful are invariably joyful.

TWO WAYS TO VIEW THE CHRISTIAN COMPLAINANT

There are good complaints and bad complaints to God.

The “good” complaint accepts that God is in control, even if we’re not able to see exactly how He’s working in the situation/season. Faith is the act of abiding in Him, in the assurance of what we do not see. In this posture, the question “God, how could you let this happen?” is the most desperate rendering of the man in full surrender, the recognition of who really is in control.

The “bad” complaint moans and despairs without bringing the circumstance or emotion back to God; in swearing at the unspeaking skies, or in the curmudgeonly fault-finding of daily living, the calloused spirit denies the sovereignty of God.

There is a place to deal with bad complaints. In ministry to the hurt, in gentle instruction and rebuke to the ungentle in spirit. But in this article, we’re focused on good complaints toward God, “involving experiences of lament, protest, disappointment, frustration, anger, and doubt toward/about God”.

Some subscribe to the prevalent model that complaint and faith are polar opposites, mutually exclusive. In this perspective, faith and complaint levels are inversely related, with the increase in one directly necessitating the decrease in the other. To spur faith, therefore, is to minimise complaint.

But this polar model falls short on several fronts.

It’s unscriptural. From the cries of King Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20:12, to Job 3:11, to Habbakuk 3:16, we read of faithful characters going through real pain and distress. The Lamentations was written for a broken Jewish people under Babylonian rule. About a third of the Psalms are blatant complaints – some sound quite petty and vengeful. Jesus Himself lamented, especially in the days leading up to His crucifixion (Mark 14:36).

It also betrays our experience. If the complainant is viewed as unfaithful, the act of complaint becomes diseased and taboo.

The fact is bad things happen to all people – good and bad – all the time. If Jesus Himself lamented under the weight of His call, we should expect the same from people who draw close to Him.

Ironically, should the average churchgoer experience similar things, he’d find reason to doubt his faith: God’s losing control. I’m not praying enough. I’m being punished. The church floats in a bubble while the world reminds him of his foolishness. Brokenness is held at arm’s length. Through a tacit adoption of the polar model, broken and hurting Christians distance themselves from God and the church community.

The weight of Scripture suggests that high levels of complaint can coexist with high levels of communion. Complaint no longer indicates unbelief, but becomes a regular, healthy feature of authentic faith – not blind, and possibly very bold. This is the biblical model that acknowledges distress while encouraging the pursuit of God.

In this circumplex model described by author Richard Beck, the degree of complaint is independent of engagement with God; complaint and communion occupy separate axes altogether.

Contrary to popular opinion, following Jesus isn’t a ticket to a prosperous, healthy and painless life. Pain is an insufficient reason to ditch your faith; neither is joy a reason to be faithful – a difficult truth to live with, but truth nonetheless.

For some, failure to lament might be the greatest symptom of faithlessness, because in our despair we stop believing that God cares or even exists.

Real followers of Jesus acknowledge suffering and death as consequences of man’s free will.

Lament allows us to express our ugliest, most destructive emotions uncensored before God who knows our entire being intimately. Cry, scream, and lament if you must.

Based on this understanding, we accept that God is often silent on the issues most painful to us. God might hear all prayers, but not all are answered. It’s not unscriptural to feel forsaken by God (Matthew 27:46), to doubt. It’s understandable to desire vengeance on our enemies (Psalm 137:9).

Lament allows us to express our ugliest, most destructive emotions uncensored before God who knows our entire being intimately, so we don’t go on a destructive rampage or completely isolate ourselves. Cry, scream, and lament if you must.

So the rains fall again on the arid plains of our hearts, and cups overflow once again.

We could plunge into the whole theology of suffering (so important), but the first step is changing culture. It’s going to take a lot of work. We must build an authentic church family deeply connected with the disorientated world outside, and not overly focused on how blessed we are within our four “safe” walls.

Lest our communities also become whitewashed tombs.

Enough of the wishful optimism or false hope that numbs us from the real brokenness and confusion, or somehow assumes we’ve got a free pass to heaven. Don’t buy that prosperity gospel. We must be desperate and hungry. We must thirst for the living water again and invite our fellow traveller to come and see (John 1:39). But all this can only happen when we lay our tears, anger, frustration, doubt and despair at His feet.

This is the hope so many desperately need. Our communities must encourage that.

Our faith could be full of cheer or drenched in tears, but only when God is allowed full communion with us can transformation truly begin. His love doesn’t just acknowledge, but overwhelms our pain. I pray you’ll have the courage to step into His love just as you are.

It’s simpler said than done, of course. But you could start with your Spotify playlist.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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The paradox of Millennial “spirituality”

by | 3 April 2017, 12:24 PM

It’s said that we fear what we don’t understand. For Singaporean Millennials, it seems that fear has grown into avoidance, with more youths shunning religion of late.

Younger Singaporeans are more likely to identify as having “no religious affiliation”. Source: The Straits Times

The reality is that we live in a post-truth culture. In this post-truth society, “religion” and “spirituality” become completely separate entities, given that religion is the cultural tradition built around man’s understanding of “God” – a streamlined attempt to attain spirituality. Modern psychology will tell you that they’re not entirely the same: a venn diagram of intersecting circles. These days, the circles no longer touch.

In a world eager to break free from the ancient chains of superstitious, fearful fathers, religion, as popularly understood, no longer satisfies our spirits. With the spiritual impulse stronger than ever, Millennials prefer to pursue it apart from “religion”.

The result is confusion, where masses pick and choose elements of religion they resonate with. Faith becomes customised, built-to-order and consequently detached from both a priori (logical, rational) and a posteriori (empirical, experiential) foundations. It is running blind.

A recent article asked 11 millennials to define their spirituality. The results capture the essence of this paradox.

3 GREAT MISCONCEPTIONS MILLENNIALS HAVE ABOUT RELIGION & SPIRITUALITY

MISCONCEPTION 1: RELIGION IS BAD FOR YOU

  • “I still believe in God and pray (although I avoid organised religion)”
  • “Being spiritual gives me a sense of being that I lost along the way (due to organised religion, labels).”

This first category suggests a deep hurt caused by organised religion, and therefore a persistent bitterness. While we try to accommodate one another, hurts are inevitable due to clashes of personality and the imperfections that characterise our human condition. It’s understandable if we need a break from church sometimes, but that pain shouldn’t determine for us what is good and true. Refuse the temptation to become enslaved by your scars.

MISCONCEPTION 2: RELIGION IS INSUFFICIENT

  • “Religion is for people who are scared of going to hell (Spirituality is for those who’ve already been there).”
  • “What feels true and ‘right’ for me (Karma, be good, just love).”
  • “Spirituality evolved from my religion.”
  • “To seek connection with other life regularly practice it (friendship, nature).”
  • “Being in tune with the narrative of human life, not just that of a specific theology (explain our motivations, actions and feelings).”

This second category suggests that standardised theology often fails to process the fullness of our experience. For instance, when we sell a hyper-prosperity gospel, real brokenness and suffering become huge barriers to belief. Likewise, when faith communities become detached from the rest of humanity, nature, history and science, you can’t help but feel deluded.

Churches can do better in equipping their leaders with theological foundations to wrestle with new ideas and stay relevant, but young people need to realise that they too have a responsibility in working out their salvation with fear and trembling. If God is really God, you’ll find Him relevant wherever you find yourself, but to go further you must take a leap in good faith.

MISCONCEPTION 3: SPIRITUALITY IS WHATEVER YOU WANT IT TO BE

  • “The better your energy, the more positive your life (an impersonal divine energy).”
  • “Being in (and part of) the flow of it all.”
  • “Self-improvement.”
  • “I follow my soul.”

The final category is the vague postmodern notion that spirituality is whatever you make of it – a freedom of choice, anything that feels good. And I mean anything: Yoga (without the Hinduism, thank you), chanting unfathomable mantras (no Buddhism here), donating to humanitarian relief, playing with cats, sports, exploring wilderness and getting high.

No doubt our spirits could be stirred by activities that give you a sense of wonder, thrill and meaning, but they would hold much more weight when placed in the context of religion. Because while our modern reflex is to shun, fear or hate what we don’t understand, true religion forms a basis of “truth” for our spirituality. Of course, that truth claim has to be discovered, wrestled and pursued by the individual.

I’m not suggesting we just choose one the big religions so you’d be better off. Neither am I condemning the seemingly endless search for the transcendent truths of our existence through “spirituality”.

Rather, dear seeker, I humbly propose that your quest for the spiritual doesn’t have to be a leap in the dark. There are footprints in the sand, trails cut out in the forest and maps drawn by brave men who ventured far beyond the boundaries of what we would consider “religion”. A torchlight is now offered to you.

Of course it isn’t as simple as saying yes. Religions are unique, and many are mutually exclusive. Saying “yes” to one equates to “no” to all others. The many interpretations within one faith also tend to cause confusion and division. But a ship built for open seas must leave the harbour.

My point is this: It’s possible to be religious and yet spiritually dead – missing the point entirely. But spirituality devoid of religion is blind.

Truth is not something we create; it’s a reality to be discovered. Your pursuit of spirituality should be grounded on truth.

Many religions make bold claims that aren’t easily taken by minds trained for scepticism. But earnest scepticism must be driven by a pursuit of truth.

Not senseless solipsism. Not intellectual pride. Not our ignorance, hurts and frustrations.

Imagine a thirsty forager refusing to look for the great river because he was too used to gathering the morning dew with an old sock.

But truth is not something we create; it’s a reality to be discovered. It seizes us, holds us, whether we like it or not. Your pursuit of spirituality should be grounded on truth.

WHAT IS TRUTH?

But here our hearts echo the frustrations of Pilate (John 18:36-38). Truth’s often offensive, divisive and elusive. Not many will search long and hard for it.

We desperately need clarity. Dare to question if you must. But while you heed your hungry spirit, consider also tradition, for it is the democracy of the deceased and the collective wisdom of civilisations past. It’ll get messy and things might change, but curious hunger for truth is no solo quest.

This might sound intellectually arrogant, but I found true spirituality within the boundaries of orthodox religion. Now, it’s not easy to be religious, let alone follow Christ in a faith of self-denial and suffering. The burden rarely feels as light as it should be. The church is so far from perfect and the urge to rebel is ever-present.

But as a Christian, Truth for me is revealed in a Person: One sought and found by men who searched with heart, soul, mind and strength (2 Chronicles 15:1-4, Jeremiah 29:13). One whom we cannot see directly, but through whom, everything becomes plain as day.

Truth embraces my painful reality, binds my broken pieces and places me in a world worth loving and fighting for. Truth suffers beside me and tells me to not be afraid of the darkness.

Truth doesn’t always spell everything out clearly, but resonates with my innermost nature, body, soul and spirit. In Him, the clarity by which I see most things gives me confidence for what remains unseen (1 Corinthians 13:12). Truth is relationship, hope and grace.

Don’t settle for the truisms of modern spirituality. You are better than that. As you search for the truly spiritual, I hope Truth will find you too, as it found me.

Truth embraces my painful reality, binds my broken pieces and places me in a world worth loving and fighting for.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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The most reasonable fool

by | 31 March 2017, 11:34 AM

It’s a common misconception that excessive creative imagination breeds insanity. We think of the insane as people whose rationality has deserted them.

Pop culture celebrates the brilliance of mentally-ill individuals while mourning their destruction: Actor Robin Williams, writer Ernest Hemingway, scientist Nikola Tesla, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and countless others.

Did such brilliance occur in spite of such soul-crushing torment, or was it a by-product? Correlation is clear, but we can only speculate about causation.

Perhaps artistic impulse, if not the whim of creativity, is catharsis for the one engaged in too much mindfulness. Paradoxically, it’s logic, rather than imagination, that often leads to insanity.

REASON IS KING

GK Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

This suggests that in the relentless pursuit of truth, the superb reasoner has allowed his mind to collapse upon itself. He’s barricaded himself in the well-lit prison of one great idea, but hides himself from the fuller picture.

The irony is that when we travel to the other “extreme” of thought – that often considered reliable, authoritative and rigorous – there are remarkable similarities to the madman.

Let’s start with what most believe to be the highest authority: Science.

THE SCIENTIST

Early scientists were curious theologians. Like how one glimpses into an artist’s mind by studying every detail of his masterpiece, these scientists trusted their God-given minds and considered it their worshipful duty to unpack the hidden, divine nuances in the natural world for the common man.

And, well, it worked. Our nuanced understanding of cause and effect enabled food security, revolutionary medicine, seamless travel and our privileged way of life. The power of science resolves conflicts and maximises efficiency, all of which lead to greater well-being. Science is that which illuminates the subtle links between all physical things.

But some of its strongest devotees began to chase rabbits, going down rabbit-trails. If not careful, the curious scientist becomes a scientific modernist. Instead of trying to explain his observations, he enslaves himself to the theories of his predecessors. Theories redefine his existence and ultimately drown him in a sea of a million identities.

His reason lures him to a great void where he floats in limbo, separate from the crowds of the unlearned.

If not careful, the self-professed man of reason may throw out the baby with the bathwater because the baby is 70% water.

Trading wonder for order, the self-professed man of reason throws out the baby with the bathwater because the baby is 70% water. When misdirected, the most robust logic can become illogical.

Like the unlearned politician who denies climate change (“believe me”), or the pastor who clumsily makes an authoritative statement on science, the scientist often oversteps his boundaries: The astrophysics PhD runs a symposium concerning human rights and Trump. The acclaimed biologist authors a best-selling book on hard naturalistic determinism – the idea that everything, including every human decision and action, is the inevitable consequence of previous events or laws – while mocking the historicity of the Old Testament.

One’s genius in his field does not give him the right to discredit experts of other fields. He’s merely become a very good specialist.

And for the non-sciency crowd, an even more insane form of scepticism is now making waves.

THE SELF-BELIEVER

Often sprinkled into the innocent maxims of motivational speeches, young people are advised to “believe in yourself”. Few ever give it much thought, but some have taken such philosophy to an extreme and, in the light of great self-belief, doubt everything else.

Thus arise solipsists, who believe that the self is the only thing that can be proven to exist, and therefore that the mind is the only known reality. Everything else is unjustified and trivial; all experience is a dream.

For such thinkers, nihilism – the belief that life is meaningless – isn’t a long shot. Which seems harmless, until people start throwing themselves off buildings or start recreational terrorism.

Both the determinist, who trusts his senses too much, and the self-believer, who doesn’t trust them at all, are perfectly rational. However, both have imprisoned themselves – the determinist has cut himself off from the possibility of heaven, and the self-believer from the world around him.

Perfect logic leads both to ultimate destruction. Such extreme theories are rigorously complete in theory but completely crippling in practice. It’s insanity.

SO WHAT?

The great thing about logic is that it leads you from point to point. It the little headlamp that lights your next step. It works amazingly well until you reach the crossroads, and – because your eyes are glued to the ground – you miss several crossroads entirely, without ever weighing the validity of other paths. You only considered one.

But when astronomers spot constellations, they don’t erase the other stars from their maps. Don’t shrink your perspective.

Tim Keller writes in The Reason for God that there are some things we accept (with great certainty) despite being unable to rationalise them: Our tendency towards moral outrage, universal human rights, the unnaturalness of humanity in a natural world.

Subtle but great implications follow: We’re either deluding ourselves by accepting these truisms independent of our (fatalistic) worldviews, or “the cosmic bench isn’t empty”.

There is a God.

Sometimes truth isn’t as elegant as we’d like, but it is still the truth.

I’m a big believer in reason. But reason cannot exist in the void. I often find myself walking the paths that lead to insanity, but by grace, God brightens the night sky so I no longer choose to see only the brightest constellations. Sometimes truth comes with difficulty, inconsistency, and apparent contradiction.

Sometimes truth isn’t as elegant as we’d like, but it is still the truth. I cannot run.

The greatest demonstration of this is the Cross of Calvary. It is the most absurd irony, the greatest leap of faith. At its core lies the greatest mystery – not illogical but beautifully, frustratingly, infinitely beyond reason – and in its light, all things become crystal clear.

“So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe.

“It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.

“But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:20-25)

So with good reason, I step into the light.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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Struggles in solitude, and my song of surrender

by Merissa Tee | 28 March 2017, 12:51 PM

I was travelling overseas alone with my ukulele, attempting to run away from all my problems back in Singapore. I was disappointed by relationships, disappointed in myself. A lifelong introvert, I thought I needed change. New experiences and new people would do the trick, I thought.

Ironically, I also wanted some time apart from those who knew me. I was tired of the love I’d grown so used to. I wanted to miraculously forget everything, ditch the baggage, heal the wounds and become better and stronger before coming home.

But while I was overseas, a lady I used to wheel to church every week from her old folks’ home passed away.

I was utterly torn. I’d promised to bring back goodies; she’d told me she’d be waiting. She treated me like her own family, but I wasn’t there when she breathed her last.

It dawned on me that becoming a better person is not a solo act. Love only operates in relationships, the most important being the one we have with God.

Those months away allowed me to experience all that I wanted: Stuck in a sudden snowstorm, I learnt to entrust my life and safety to God. He opened my eyes to the simple joys of life and the beauty of creation. I made amazing new lifelong friends who welcomed me, a foreigner, into their loving community with open arms – love I never thought I deserved. Through their example, I learnt to do likewise for strangers whom I crossed paths with.

Now I know that merely wishing and waiting for God to change me wasn’t enough. That change would only happen when I learnt to think less of myself and more of others.

Instead of expecting people to love me the just the way I was, I had to learn to love others more, seeing beauty in brokenness just as God did for me before I knew Him.

With all this in mind, ukelele in hand, far from home, I wrote this song:

Before I Get Home

I’ve packed up all my bags
It’s time to just relax
You gotta let me go
Be back in a year or so

I’m running off the tracks
Why is life this complex
I’ve been living for myself
I can’t do anything else

Oh no, I’m not really invincible
But I’ll be back before you know
So just let me leave

All I want is
A little time to myself
I’m trying to understand
What is love
I just gotta know
What my life is for
Oh God will you change me
Before I get home

I don’t mind being invisible
As long as I’m truly willing to love
You’ll see a better me

All I need is
To see less of myself
I’m trying to understand
So I can love even more
I gotta be sure
What my life is for
Oh God you’re changing me
Before I get home
All I want is to finally go home

Now I’m home, the struggle continues. Life so easily becomes mundane and I find the ratrace stealing my joy. It’s so, so easy to despair.

But every time I sing this song, I find my eyes turn back to God’s grace. My spirit is lifted as I acknowledge His constant presence and working in my life, in our lives. My soul rests because I know He makes all things beautiful in His time.

We need to be reminded to seek Him daily, to focus our eyes on Him, and pray for His word to change our hearts. Then we’ll begin to see that He is the living God who loves and cares for our every need, physical, emotional and spiritual.

If you are going through a hard time, know you’re not alone – let’s walk this road together. The victorious end is already set out for us. Though we struggle in this life, our lives are always in His hands. God is honing and moulding us to do His great work before we finally meet Him face-to-face.

Mersie is a singer-songwriter and artist who attends Zion Serangoon Bible Presbyterian Church. You can follow her at @mersietee on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and on her Facebook page.

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Bromance is dead

by | 28 March 2017, 12:27 PM

Think of your three closest friends.

Now think about the last time you spoke to each one of them.

Next, try to recall what makes them come alive – their wildest dreams and greatest fears.

If you’re a girl, chances are this exercise has brought warmth to your heart. You’ve met these dear friends fairly recently, in person or via Skype. You don’t have many opportunities to meet, but you make time. Over a cuppa, you pick up right where you left off.

If you’re a guy, however, you’re probably feeling apprehensive. (Unless, of course we’re talking about the girl you’re wooing – but that’s a story for another day).

But let’s be honest: It’s a false bromance. You’ve had deeper conversations with Siri.

Men do pretty well keeping friendships through school and National Service, but things fall apart quickly by the time we’re “out in the real world”. We bump into old friends on the street, or “like” our buddies’ stuff on Facebook. We exchange the usual niceties, bro-fist and make plans.

But let’s be honest: It’s a false bromance. You’ve had deeper conversations with Siri.

When we say our goodbyes, we’re already half-resigned to the fact that our plans to “relive the glory days” by hiking the Himalayas, chasing the Northern Lights or cave diving the Mexican cenotes will probably never materialise. All that mountaineering gear you bought on impulse a year ago will slowly corrode till one day you decide – with kids on lap and bills to pay – to Carousell them for good.

My apologies for making you feel like a loser. But it’s a real issue that needs to be discussed: Loneliness is a poison

LOVE OR DIE

Society’s finally started talking about depression, but nobody wants to admit they’re Mr Lonely. German psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann proposed that loneliness – emotional isolation – lies at the heart of all mental illness.

More depressingly, it’s merely the beginning of a long list of physical maladies. The psychological effect of prolonged isolation compromises one’s physical health as much as long-term smoking. The chronically lonely face are prone to a myriad of health problems: Obesity, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, neurodegenerative diseases and even cancer – a 26 to 32 per cent increased risk of premature death.

And – the irony – if you happen to be feeling lonely, you’re not alone. One in three people aged 45 and above suffer from chronic loneliness (up from one in five a decade before). Many of these are married.

 

The irony: If you happen to be feeling lonely, you’re not alone.

We’ve got an epidemic on our hands.

With the flame of bromance flickering, men also seem to fare far worse in mid-life, with suicide rates of male Baby Boomers disproportionately higher (27.3 out of 100,000) than their female counterparts (8.1) in the US.

A CULTURE OF ISOLATION

The ugly admission is we – men and women alike – are just too tired and busy for our buddies.

Somehow, women are often slightly better at maintaining trusted relationships, while men let their outdated relationships – like those old hiking boots – lapse into ruin. We’re good at making “friends” wherever, but few, if any, of these go deeper than a hi/bye or follow us into the next season. A quick scroll through your abandoned WhatsApp chats should confirm this.

So many men live in a loneliness trap where big dreams are crushed by the mundane responsibilities of life. Not that women don’t dream big or are more irresponsible, but men are more likely to fall into isolation walking in the tension between ideal and reality.

“Loneliness is the want of intimacy,” said Soren Kierkegaard. And it seems our chronic lack of intimacy is caused by culture: Capitalism and meritocracy.

The Singapore dream. Efficiency and competitiveness at the cost of empathy. Social media making us “more connected” but “more lonely” than ever before. The endless feed of spam that uses every bit of our mental faculty while failing to nourish our souls. Romantic ideals that downplay the importance of meaningful non-romantic relationships. The valid but often abused idea of “boundaries”.

Studies on identical twins even suggest a genetic predisposition to loneliness – nature – while biologists have discovered that our loneliness levels later in life are affected by the conditions of our formative years – nurture.

There are reasons to support the gender-difference too: The stigma of emotional men, the side-by-side nature of male friendships (compared to face-to-face in women) premised on shared interests and goals, male ambition and “alpha” pride.

From school, to church, to office, you get the feeling that males only thrive in communities with visionary leadership, room for ruckus and high stakes. Apart from these, men tend to become wandering lone wolves.

I think of the exodus of men from church in droves. And while there are things the church can do to mitigate the trend, the reality is that the modern man is terrible at making real friends, and the Church so happens to be a community of such friends.

It’s time men learnt to make real friends.

IT’S NOT GOOD FOR MAN (AND WOMAN) TO BE ALONE

The solution to loneliness is human connection. And while this may come in the form of romantic love in marriage, it doesn’t necessarily have to.

Men and women are tied in other intimate ways (1 Corinthians 11:11), where we learn to treat one another as brothers and sisters. Men also need meaningful male relationships for brotherhood, discipleship, role models, prayer and accountability. We all could use a bro, and the Bible is full of bromance

The cycle of hopeless, desperate isolation finds its solution in communities of love made possible by Jesus.

But of all the stories of bromance, one stands out. Thanks to Jesus, we have the glorious privilege of knowing the King of Kings, Lord of Lords – Bro of Bros, if you will.

Mere friendship falls painfully short of God’s agape because they are at best superficial and at worst completely false. Bluntly put, they are self-serving: We get a kick out of our friends. We use them as punching bags, self-help guides or stuffed bears. Some friendships are clever disguises for romantic pursuits. Even in marriage, many still feel alone because they don’t understand God’s perfect love.

WELCOME TO THE BODY OF CHRIST, BRO

The key to restoring our connection with humans is in reviving our love: First with God, then with our fellow man.

In the case of the two greatest commandments given by God and reiterated by Jesus in Matthew 22:36-40, one cannot exist without the other: We love God by loving people; we learn to love people by loving God. And – something most of us miss – we must allow others to love us by learning to receive love graciously in community.

Consider the three friends you named earlier. In spite of life’s many frustrating challenges, our limited energy and time, God gives you the ability to love them because He loves you. In fact, He calls you to love the different, the lost, your enemies and the unlovable.

This is the Church: Not a building, but relationships built on the love of Jesus.

As our elderly are packed into nursing homes run by foreign-language staff, factory jobs are gradually replaced by mechanised artificial intelligence, screens continue to “facilitate” personal and professional interactions, and the young search in vain for a meaningful existence, the cycle of hopeless, desperate isolation finds its solution in communities of love made possible by Jesus.

Such love is both our witness (John 17:20-21) and our saving grace (John 14:18-21). It is literally moving from death to life.

Bros and sisters, treat every little symptom of your loneliness if you must – your life depends on it. But understand that we fight against the laws of entropy unless we are supernaturally revived. If you consider yourself lonely, look first to Jesus. Ask Him to fill you with His love. Then go and do likewise. Be the church.

It might start with a humble bromance of three, but in time it’ll grow vastly beyond what you can ask or imagine. Big Bro’s got your back.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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I’m single. How could I possibly understand the love of Christ?

by Anthony Seah | 24 March 2017, 4:46 PM

I’ve reached that age. The age when all your friends are either getting married or posting their engagement photos on Facebook. When your heart starts to hurt when you realise how single you are and you wallet starts to hurt from all the hongbao you’ve had to give at wedding dinners.

The struggles of singlehood have slowly become a reality for me, made starker by the recent marathon of weddings I’ve been attending. At first I enjoyed the process: Rejoicing with the marriage couple, at the same time thinking of the day it will be my bride and I at the altar, hands tightly locked, getting ready to face married life ahead together.

But with each wedding I attend, that feeling has slowly turned to desperation, jealousy and longing. There’s a certain frustration bubbling beneath the congratulations to the couple, and hope begins to fade that the promised day will come for me. When will my bride come? Is she around the corner, or a million miles away? When will she walk through those doors in the church, and in that moment lay to rest all this expectant hope?

It’s been comforting to know that I don’t struggle with this alone – the articles on Thir.st about singlehood and loneliness have given me much encouragement and hope. But if marriage is ordained by God – designed to reveal the mysteries of Christ and the Church – why would this good thing be kept from me?

In this season of singleness, could I experience and understand this wondrous mystery, or will I continue to be on the outside looking in? Or does that mystery take on a different form? Can the emotions and thoughts of a single person possibly still grasp and reflect the marriage of Christ and His Church?

One of the strongest emotions I experience is be the longing and the restlessness of heart. Longing to meet “The One” for the first time, to fall head over heels in love (excuse my hopeless romanticism). But I also wonder if this longing for my wedding day echoes the type of longing I think we should have for Christ’s return.

In the drudgery and hopelessness of life, we wait in expectant hope of the day the True Groom will come and sweep us off our feet, into his blissful and eternal rest. And I wonder if the frustration I am feeling might echo the same kind of restlessness and wandering that the Church will experience till that day comes – the frustration with this life that can not satisfy, knowing that the life redeemed and complete only comes when Christ comes again.

Can the emotions and thoughts of a single person could possibly still reflect the marriage of Christ and His Church?

Or, as the romantic apostle Peter wrote: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9 ESV)

I could only imagine what kind of joy will fill our hearts when we finally meet Jesus on our wedding day and see Him as He is, and be like Him (1 John 3:2). If it’s anything like then joy I know I’ll have when I meet my bride, the please hasten that day, for it will be so much more! Perhaps as a Church, if we had the same kind of restlessness and longing, we would be, so much more, living out the gospel expectant of His return.

Beneath all the hot-pink, bubblegum, cotton-candy romance, marriage is pretty much … a painful process. It is essentially a man and woman dying to their old lives and their own will, and taking up this new life together as one – to love and hold each other’s lives more than their own, to prefer each other’s needs above their own, to care and to share with the other, even when it is painful and requires much sacrifice.

It’s interesting that the vows are said at the altar – where the married couple die to themselves, the sacrifice of love.

Perhaps our love for the Christ and His Church should be a reflection, a purer form, of this self-denying love. Just as Christ laid down his life for the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33), we follow in his footsteps to build each other up, as Paul mentions in Ephesians: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16 ESV)

It’s interesting that the vows are said at the altar – where the married couple die to themselves, the sacrifice of love.

Maybe my search to love and to be loved is so that I first learn to love the church, and I could essentially experience “married life” in the life of the Church, minus all the mushy romance bits. Maybe my learning to loving the church as Christ does could even prepare me to love my future bride in a Christ-like manner. Either way, my waiting in my singleness is meant to be spent on building up the Church in love.

I still struggle with loneliness and the desire to get married. But I also understand that God is using this season for my good, that I may find my sufficiency in being loved by Jesus as part of the Church. These are all but noble thoughts, and while they give me hope and respite, I don’t deny that there is something magical and beautiful in being in love.

Perhaps one day, I will find “The One”, and perhaps on that day, our relationship will further help me understand Christ’s love for the Church. But till that day, I pray my heart will learn to find rest not in the foolish things of the earth that promise me love, but the love that already has been given to me: The love of Christ and the love of the Church.

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Why I stay in my job, despite bad bosses and dodgy practices

by Anthony Seah* | 21 March 2017, 2:56 PM

I used to think that engineers had a life relatively free of “work politics”. After all, the stereotypes suggest engineers are shy, awkward and harmless, right?

So fresh out of college, I took up a role in a company that provided a service meant for public use, where I could impact the most people – plus they had a good training programme that I thought would help me in my engineering career. I even thought I could set up a Christian workplace fellowship there. I was ready to make an impact in the world for Jesus, and build his Kingdom through my engineering work.

But like all plans made in blissful ignorance and presumption, I was in for a rude awakening.

The company decided to second me to one of its subsidiaries which was working on a “new cutting-edge project”. But they subsequently withdrew all the promised training programmes and told me I could not be rotated to various departments, unlike the other management trainees, due to this subsidiary’s “business needs”.

I was ready to make an impact in the world for Jesus, and build his Kingdom through my engineering work. But I was in for a rude awakening.

Despite drawing the short straw in this, I saw the value and potential of the project, so I stayed on. Yet, it was just the beginning of my troubles.

My whole perception of engineers being “shy, awkward and harmless” was thrown out the window as a I watched a real-life Game of Thrones unfold before my eyes at my workplace. I saw corruption, money laundering, backstabbing and sandbagging. Shortcuts were taken for personal gain, at the expense of operational safety. Work was discouraging as we watched the project get delayed week after week because of all the politicking going on.

The company was bleeding money due to all the unscrupulous siphoning of company funds. When we approached HR/finance to find out more about the matter, we were told that something would eventually be done, but we had to pull through to deliver on the project for now, as the project was deemed to be critical to the subsidiary’s survival.

The situation hit rock bottom when we lost seven staff in one month month – they were either terminated due to political reasons, or quit because they had had enough. There were rumours of insolvency.

I was confronted with a choice – bail from the sinking ship or stay and fight on. As I looked at my engineering peers who were earning more in other companies which had better work environments, I struggled with where God had placed me. It forced me to really think through what I was trying to accomplish through my daily work.

What happened to my grand plan of impacting the world for God and His Kingdom? I didn’t ask to be put in this place – should I seek my self-preservation instead? I spoke to some of the supervisors that I could trust, and sought counsel from my church mentors and cell group. The answers I received could be distilled to a few key issues …

ASK YOURSELF: HOW DO YOU VIEW YOUR WORK?

1. How does my understanding of Christ and the Gospel shape my work?

Just as my heavenly Father’s work consist of creating and sustaining all things, my work should mimic His work, to the benefit of society and for the common good. It is the primary way in which I can love my neighbour, both Christian and non-Christian, through my vocation.

Where God has placed me, I should also seek to expand Jesus’ kingdom and participate in His redeeming work. That also involves me fighting for His kingdom values and shining His light where it is darkest. Where there is corruption and deceit, I should seek truth and pursue engineering and financial integrity. Where there is politics and bullying, I should seek justice for the oppressed.

And just as the Spirit’s work is to give life through the Word of Christ, I should also try to speak life to my colleagues, encouraging them in difficult times and lending them a listening ear. And, if possible, finding opportunities to share the true Word of the Gospel.

Rooting my idea of work in the work that my heavenly Father is doing helped affirm my choice of jobs – that while it is a difficult and often discouraging work, it is a good work.

2. If I understand that my work is to be shaped by Jesus’ kingdom and mission, how does that affect the way I view my workplace?

If I accept that my workplace is my mission field, then my primary response should be to pray for my workplace, just as we would pray for any other mission field. In particular, the desperation of the situation drove me to pray for God’s justice to prevail, and for the work to be completed in a way that honours God.

Getting involved in the lives of my fellow colleagues also gave me opportunity to pray for them in a more personal manner. And I also discovered the power of the Holy Spirit – just as Jesus had promised to be with us where we do his mission in all the world, His Spirit could empower me to work. Not just in terms of technical competency, but also in giving me the wisdom to navigate tricky and complex situations, with the right words or actions to bless those around me.

All I had to do was ask.

3. How should I factor job security into my career choices?

I came to the realisation that understanding God’s sovereignty and purpose in my life meant that I need not worry about job security. My career is not my primary work: Jesus’ Gospel and mission are. And if I lose (or quit) my job, it just means that my time in this job is done, and that God is moving me from one mission field to the next.

Neither would I have to worry about my training programme – God promises to supply all I need to do His mission through my job.

God is at work for His kingdom, just as I am working for Him in my job. Knowing this has freed me up to be truly rested in my workplace despite the circumstances. As my boss told me: Never be too afraid to lose your job that you can’t do it properly; focus on one task at a time and eventually you’ll be able to sort things out. 

As long as I know that Christ is my boss, then whatever work he calls me to is a good work.

After much deliberation, I decided to stay and persevere at my current job. It is encouraging to see a few loyal colleagues, my boss included, in engineering, HR and finance who want to fight for the future of the company and the good of the public.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t go through tough days where I have second thoughts. In my discouragement I had a monthly ritual of scrolling through job portals and looking over the fence to see how much greener the grass could be on the other side. Even as I write this, the project is six months behind schedule and there are rumours that management might still want to shut down the project.

But it helps that my cell group shares and bears my burdens with me, and keeps my mind focused on Christ. For as long as I know that Christ is my boss, then whatever work he calls me to is a good work.

“Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.” (Colossians 3:22-25 ESV)


The writer’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

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Done with church? Hold it right there

by | 17 March 2017, 4:35 PM

I don’t always feel at home in church. Some days I drag myself in (late – sorry pastor), force myself through those oh-not-again songs about emotions I wasn’t feeling, remembering what someone told me about “worship starting with the will”. Read a feel-good verse about God’s love, without interpretation or context. Someone speaks. I’ve heard it before.

I look at the empty seats once occupied by friends – fellow soldiers, leaders, visionaries – many still Christian, but no longer wanting any association with the place where they still reel from wounds they feel were inflicted on them.

On days like these, I somehow hang on, but barely. I try to will myself back, with limited success.

RETHINKING AN UNEASY FAITH

Of course, it hadn’t always been like this.  Once upon a time, I felt I belonged in church. In its warm community I learnt, sang, laughed and cried with people who loved me unconditionally. They became my family, told me about Jesus, called me “child of God”, and lowered me into still waters before a cheering crowd.

But many in this family also taught me not to trust science because it had an “atheist agenda“, decrying the mass media as having a “gay agenda”, ending any argument by saying “the Bible says”, and insisting “sex” was a four-letter word. Doubt and depression were things to “pray away”, the church was always good, and anyone in opposition to God’s Truth were bad guys.

Oh, and they’d freak out and hide their children whenever a new movie (or celebrity) came out.

I first came across the term “post-evangelical” in a book by Dave Tomlinson. I laughed at the audacity. It reeked of esoteric intellectual pride, almost suggesting it’s the natural progression for Christians to outgrow the “evangelical” or mainstream phase: Sheltered Sunday-school kids having their world shaken up by some aggressive agenda-pushing philosophy professor, or ignorant Christians finally experiencing grief and brokenness in the real world.

Others return to the old tradition, finding comfort in culture that, while archaic, has stood the test of time.

I took heart that the post-evangelical impulse wasn’t unique to me and that I didn’t necessarily have to leave the faith I grew up in.

I acknowledged the problems with the modern church: Entanglement with Right-wing politics, blind fundamentalism, cultural warfare, losing sight of the poor, weak theology, prosperity gospel, anti-intellectualism, fear-mongering and holier-than-thou worldviews.

I think there are legitimate Biblical grounds to disagree with the way churches do some things. The way I’m wired, I also happen to learn much more from old books and one-on-one conversations than the pulpit. God would understand if someone leaves the Church, wouldn’t He?

I’ve learnt that my fellow post-evangelicals, progressives, un-fundamental, emergent Christians tend to react to mainline fundamentalism in different ways. Some adopt a politically-correct Christianity that emphasises grace. No rules, and definitely no politics.

And it’s not because they want to water down the faith to make it more palatable. Rather, they’re absolutely convinced that the Gospel is for all people. Sick of the political wars of their fathers, they focus solely on shaping culture through art, films, and let their tattoos speak for themselves.

A necessary marketing makeover for the old faith our forefathers held dear. Just keeping up with the times.

Some find themselves taking sides in opposition to their parents. Relooking at issues such as war/pacifism, Israel/Palestine, gay marriage, pro-life/pro-choice, they’d prefer to think for themselves than be told how to think. They’d devour Kant, Marx, and Darwin alongside the Psalms and learn more about other religions than their practitioners. Maybe learn a bit of Greek.

Others return to the old tradition, finding comfort in culture that, while archaic, has stood the test of time – any semblance of purity seen as preferable to its modern commercialised counterpart. Politically, they’re detached, focusing instead on what the early church used to be in Acts 2:42-47 and believing that that would usher in God’s kingdom from the bottom-up.

But while I was initially excited with the prospect of a renewed, revived church stemming from these movements, it didn’t seem very helpful. Though natural for the historical church to oscillate between “puritan” and “liberal” movements, labels such as “post-evangelicalism” – guess where we learnt to do that: Evolutionist, backslider, liberal, heretic, postmodern, lukewarm – lead us down the same baby-with-bathwater approach to diversity.

It perpetuates an “us-vs-them” narrative that encourages wall-building rather than loving people different from ourselves.

These walls exist around the single lady offended by their cell group’s matchmaking efforts, the ex-cell leader whose small group has since dissolved, the ex-something, the one struggling with ___, and the guitarist who swayed too much or told he/she sounded bad on stage. 

More walls ringfence the divorcee, single parent, the one who can’t remove the cusses from his vocabulary, the one accused of “stumbling” others because of dressing decisions, the one called rebellious because he had doubts, who interprets the Bible differently and who struggles to understand the superiority of “traditional marriage”.

Walls. Labels. Divisions. Presumptions and assumptions. Hurts and wounds. Casualties caused by friendly fire. I’m sure you’re as sick of it as I am. And when offended, your instinct may be to flip tables and storm out the nearest exit. Burn the bridge and block those ignorant, hurtful zealots on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

But before you do, take a deep breath. Church is supposed to be messy, because it’s a place for healing, uplifting, rebuilding. If everyone is perfect, 1) they don’t need the help, and 2) they’re lying.

Just because the Church is unlovable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love the Church. Because it’s still the Church Jesus loves.

Division isn’t the solution; I pray we’ll have the will to steer our criticism to constructive ends. Forgive the ignorance of others and learn to see others through the eyes of grace. Sometimes reconciliation is difficult, but be the one who dares to extend an olive branch. 

The simple effort to make peace speaks far more than any theological argument you can bellow.

Running away is the greatest cop-out. React strongly if you must, but react with truth and grace.

If you haven’t been back into church for a while, I pray for the courage to take the step back into love – maybe another church, but still part of the Church. Love cannot exist in isolation.

Running away is the greatest cop-out. Respond strongly if you must, especially when the church begins to look more like the culture at large than what Jesus spoke of. But respond with truth and grace, for love covers a multitude of sins (even the most ugly, painful ones). Respond with hope, because the Kingdom of God is already here – in us.

God’s truth is timeless, and perhaps the Spirit might inspire another reformation. Ironically, I’ve the feeling it’ll be back to historical orthodoxy, albeit sharper, more relevant and more alive than anything you’ve seen before.

But that change can only come through you – you who can’t seem to fit the mould – if you stay in the good fight. Look to Jesus: There is no mould, only beauty in diversity (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Don’t throw the baby with the bathwater just yet.

Time to write the next chapter of this Kingdom – together.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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What college life taught me about faith

by Esther "Slidingtackles" | 16 March 2017, 4:50 PM

You start university with your timetable empty.

But slowly, with every fair you go to – faculty events fairs, CCA fairs, sports fairs, et cetera – your schedule starts filling up, first the weeknights, then the Saturdays and Sundays, then the slots where you don’t have lectures, until you don’t have a second to breathe.

Generally speaking, studies, social life, and (for some) sleep get prioritised. But those of us who are Christians know in the back of our minds that when we come to college, we seek first not only to pull ourselves through, but also to bring Christ to those around us. (Some of us have this conviction deeper than others.)

I started out Year 1 with the vision for myself that I would enjoy everything I do and do it all to the glory of God. For Him, not for myself. But this changed as I found that other things took over the top of the priority list. My next social gathering beckoned while church events and quiet time took a backseat.

At first my conscience was slightly disturbed, but I suppressed the thought, telling myself I would get my priorities in order when it was possible – but now was not the time. This repeated itself all semester and by the end of Semester 1, I was burnt out and tired. Happy, but superficially so.

I thought through this in Semester 2 and as I entered my second academic year I realised what a failure I’d been because I’d put God in as part of my to-do list. It was not that I did not prioritise Him, but He was just another thing to tick off the list. So since it wasn’t a task I could finish, I found I could always push it to the next day, or the day after.

But by His grace I came to my senses in Year 2. These are some lessons I learnt in the process.

4 THINGS I LEARNT IN UNIVERSITY

1. God should not be part of your priority list – He should stand above it

God should rule your to-do list. How I arrange what I need to do for the day, week and month should be regulated by my attitude towards God. This means that I should allocate the firstfruits of my time to seek Him – whether it’s quiet time in the morning or night – and not do it only when it is convenient for me to do so. If He really comes first, other things can wait.

2. We are often stressed that we cannot finish everything we have to do.

I face this problem all the time, and still do. But I figured somewhere along the way that the reason I face this problem is because I never truly and fully believed that God is the God of the impossible. If I said He is Who He is then I should believe it – and that means to trust that if I go for that prayer meeting instead of allocating that 2-hour slot to finish another 500 words of my essay, He will help me to complete it.

I say this not meaning that we should leave our work to the last minute and expect Him to complete it for us. But when we are conflicted over whether to go for a church meeting over doing a piece of school work instead, try to put Him first, try having faith in Him: He promised He will be faithful and never fail us. This applies in school, too.

3. Do things not half-heartedly, but with all that we have – not for ourselves, but for Him.

God tells us He wants us to do everything we do with our whole heart. Whether it be relationships with people or academics, or any other task we sign up to do, we should not do it with a nonchalant attitude.

We are living testimonies for Christ and for the Christian values that we claim to uphold. So the way we carry ourselves in our posture towards schoolwork is also a way to share the Gospel. The Bible says we should do everything as unto God, and not to men.

4. Our standard should not be that of men, but of God.

In a society where your GPA, CAP, or any other form of academic grading seems to be so important – determining our futures – it is hard to look at anything outside that box. It is essential to always remind ourselves that we belong to Christ, and that God is the only one whose opinion matters.

We serve a God who controls all the world, do we believe that our grades and our lives are in His hand too?

Ultimately, once we’ve done our best, we can leave the result to God. At the same time, should we experience failure in school, maybe there are lessons God wants us to learn. So when we feel we have not been able to live up to the expectations of the world, family, ourselves, or anyone else, remember that it is God’s expectations and His favour and love toward us that count.


Esther is a 21 year old child stuck in the world of literature, doodler at facebook.com/distressdoodles, coffee-drugged churchgoer and avid football fanatic.

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Faith and feminism: A love-hate affair

by | 8 March 2017, 1:36 PM

There exists no universal moral law that upholds women’s rights – or anyone’s rights for that matter. The moral claim that we should uphold women’s rights stems from the metaphysical claim that women are equal in value.

Does every feminist understand where that claim comes from?

For Christians, the Bible is the basis of all existence, morality and political philosophy.

BIBLICAL GROUNDS FOR EQUALITY: IMAGO DEI

The notion of imago dei comes from the Biblical creation story (Genesis 1:27, 2:20). Men and women are both made in the image of God. Note the Hebrew word for helper, ezer, doesn’t suggest subordination because it’s also used to describe God when He delivered His people.

Whether curse or prophecy, the subjection of women to men was a consequence of the Fall (Genesis 3:16).

But I admit there are difficulties for the modern reader to digest how the Bible seems to view women.

The Torah speaks of a patriarchal society where it was culturally normal to treat women as second-class. Some Mosaic laws seemed to permit men to rape women at a small cost (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), considered women a possession that can be defiled (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), and permitted unfair brutality against a protective wife (Deuteronomy 25:11-12).

“Jealous” men could put their wives through “tests” and get away with it even if they were wrong (Numbers 5:11-31). Men could also veto women’s vows (Numbers 30). Periods were seen as unclean (Leviticus 15:19).

Was this God’s intended juxtaposition of men and women, or did Moses interpret Him wrongly? Ceremonial law, moral law, or just culture norms?

PAUL DIDN’T CLEAR THINGS UP

And it’s not like all the controversy evaporated with the New Covenant – it’s in the New Testament too.

We have Paul to thank for instructing women to remain silent in church, cover their heads in worship, and never teach a man (1 Timothy 2:12). To Paul, women weren’t the glory and image of God, but merely the glory of man (1 Corinthians 11:7-9).

I don’t know how much authority you give Paul’s letters, but our church fathers found it worthy of canonisation.

Don’t even get me started on the taboo S-word: Submission. Is it necessarily bad? We’re called to submit to God (James 4:7), His law (Romans 8:7), man’s laws (Romans 13:1) and one another (Ephesians 5:21) – which includes men submitting to women too. Wives are instructed to submit to their husbands (1 Peter 3:4-6) – not all men.

Perhaps submission is simply part and parcel of discipleship, rather than a value statement.

The apparent contradiction is that God’s created ideal doesn’t discriminate genders – the Bible does tell of some very strong women who weren’t just housewives and mothers – but His laws for the Israelites seem to do so.

JESUS A FEMINIST?

Perhaps our greatest hope lies in the person of Jesus, who demonstrated unconditional love to men and women alike. By today’s standards He might be called a feminist – He gave women (including His mother) the privilege of special revelation – but the truth is, He was so much more.

He was somewhat egalitarian but also scandalously gracious. He just gave: To the sinners, the outcasts and the children. He healed the sick and spoke of a Kingdom where it was blessed to mourn, to be meek, peaceable and poor in spirit.

He challenged every societal and religious norm of His day to reveal the heart of God with truth and grace. He toppled every hierarchy and shone His light into the law. He wasn’t just sinless, but above morality. He did not nullify but fulfilled the law – mysteriously and perfectly for our salvation.

BELIEVING WHAT WE WOULD RATHER NOT BELIEVE

Is our Jewish heritage void? Jesus held the Old Testament in high regard, and said the Scriptures testify about Him (John 5:39). If you believe Jesus, you must grapple with that authority and wrestle for hidden truth knowing that the Scriptures alone do not save us.

I wish Jesus said more about these complexities. He must open our minds (Luke 24:45). The good news is He gave us the Holy Spirit, whom I suggest we humbly turn to for wisdom, clarity and grace.

It’s every Christian’s obligation to submit to God even if it doesn’t sit easy. The three-way tension lies between our conscience (Romans 2:15), the kind of God we believe in and that which the Bible presents. Ideally, they should be the same. But most people wrestle in mystery.

Not everyone copes well with the tension.

The lazy will ditch the faith. The fundamentals (both scientific and religious) might slap an “evil” label on it for anathema. Progressives might search for compromise and interpret text differently. Scholars might study text in the original Hebrew or Greek for accuracy, together with cultural context. Others might suppose these laws, while discriminatory, were for protection of women or unity of the church – not easy answers.

SO, SHOULD CHRISTIANS BE FEMINISTS?

Were you expecting a definite answer?

Given the different interpretations of God’s Word, and the different strains of feminism that came in different waves, I cannot give a definite answer.

While certain elements might be at odds, we should be upfront about the equality of women. Feminism is very much an imperfect human application of Christian ethics to the civil injustice of our age. Call yourself a Feminist if you must, but remember that Feminism is not God.

Traditional feminism is generally something Christians should stand for, but that shouldn’t compel us to support every modern permutation.

Start the conversation in Church, in your cell groups and in your families. The wisdom of many trumps the intellectual struggles of one.

Instead of jumping on the bandwagon to don a politically correct identity, I believe we ought to focus on loving people regardless of their beliefs as Christ loves us. Much of the New Testament involves surrendering our rights (Romans 12:1) and loving God above all (Matthew 10:37), not demanding them for ourselves or other people.

I pray He’ll teach us how to love all people the same: Men, women, the right and wrong, the bureaucrats, silent majority and the activists. Fight for every woman oppressed, stereotyped and discriminated against. Fight also for every other kind of injustice in any other place. We all need Jesus.

May we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) as we continue to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Ask for grace to look at even the most difficult, confused, entitled Feminist marching in the street for something subtly harmful to women, and march alongside her not because we agree with everything she says, but because she’s she’s imago dei – she’s got the right to know, and we’ve got the right to tell her.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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At the gym, working out my idols

by | 21 February 2017, 9:08 AM

So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (1 Corinthians 7:24)

A friend recently accused me of idolatry. The hour I spent every day at the gym was significantly longer than that spent I poring over Scripture, he said. God obviously “wasn’t a priority” for me, he concluded.

The scary thing was that I could think of several other things – studies, ministry, work, books, even sleep – that I spent more time on than I did on God.

Are these idols? Seriously? Is the spirituality demanded of us really a simple matter of denying everything and being on our knees 24/7?

CITIZENS OF TWO KINGDOMS

The majority of life consists of the physical, fleshly and carnal. These purposeless things are seen as lowly by-products of our fallenness. Taking out the trash. Cutting your nails. Your day job.

(Gym.)

Then there’s the spiritual. These things are holy, purposeful, and sacred: Worship, prayer, the Sacraments, Bible study. Evangelism, discipleship, ministry. Of these, the Mary-sitting-at-Jesus’-feet sort take priority over the Martha activities.

We live in the constant tension of divided loyalties. We have to downplay the worldliness of our everyday humanity, while holding on to an ideal destiny that bears little resemblance to real-life. Two distinct kingdoms fighting for authority. We’re walking to and fro, and settle disillusioned in the borderlands.

Is the spirituality demanded of us really a simple matter of denying everything and being on our knees 24/7?

But this feels like slavery. We’re supposed to work, yet wait. We must pray, yet do good. Our faith becomes irrelevant to most of our life. Excessively “heaven-minded”, we are blind to our great Earthly purpose today, in this frustrating limbo. We just wait for deliverance and hope for the best. Things could be falling apart around us but we beat our chests and say we’re bound for heaven.

On the whole, our holy huddles may begin to look like nothing more than a prescriptive, preventive social club, full of delusion and unfulfilled promises.

Where does that leave you? Shall you sail the streams of lukewarmness all your life? Do you look wistfully to the heroes of faith, and resign yourself to the limitations of your upbringing, genetics and environment?

Of course not.

A KINGDOM UNIFIED

While Jesus taught meekness and humility as kingdom values, we cannot confuse this for self-hatred and forced modesty. We are called to love God and man (including ourselves), who carry the likeness of God. Deny our self-directed wills, but not our reality.

After all, the Holy Spirit can only make His dwelling in a healthy temples (1 Corinthians 6:19). And the Holy Spirit doesn’t just dwell idly in us. Full human beings are awakened to live for His glory.

There was no sacred-secular antithesis for Jesus. Spirit and flesh unified, submitted to the will of Father God. I believe the life of Jesus, the carpenter’s son, had its fair share of the mundane. Think: Gathering wood, sawing, household chores. But nothing was pointless; the whole of His life was about worshipping the Father (John 5:19).

Spirit and flesh might be different things, but an awakened spirit points all flesh to its Creator.

If you’re having second thoughts, remember that Paul proposed that even our eating and drinking can be for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Doesn’t sound too spiritual, does it? But it is; full, real, all-consuming. Rather than restricting our freedom, taking hold of God’s heart for our lives expands our perspective of what it means to die to sin and live for Him.

And it extends far beyond humanity.

Think about it. If all things were created from Him, through Him, and for Him, it means that every created thing – living and non-living – is there to bring Him glory. The birds fly for Him. Fish swim for Him. Trees photosynthesise, fungi facilitate decay, tides rise and fall, waves crash, the wind blows, the clouds gather and disperse for Him. The rivers flow, and sculpt the terrestrial landscape for Him. The stones cry out. Minerals, DNA, molecules and atoms, planets, galaxies exist and interact.

All for His glory.

Our lives are no different. Spirit and flesh might be different things, but an awakened spirit points all flesh to its Creator.

WHEREVER YOU ARE, WHATEVER YOU DO

So today I propose a toast. All life is vanity – eating, sleeping, working, lifting – unless we live in Him.

But here’s the catch. Even though I chug way more protein shakes than the blessed wine of Holy Communion, I’ve found the gym a place of great ministry.

The reasons people step into a gym are often similar to why they might give Church a shot. Many acknowledge their failings, and are taking intentional steps to repair and rebuild. Some are in it for the kick. Some dream of competition. Several others pay penance at the squat rack for a life of bad decisions.

But in here, community forms quickly. “Bros” are made in hours. When it gets serious, lifting partners literally depend on each other for their lives. There’s trust, commitment, camaraderie.Walls come down, and before long you’re bearing more than just physical weight for one another. Relationships grow. Trust develops. Before long, you’re brethren and sistren in the iron.

I’m there for long, sweaty hours. Might as well make it count, in the form of long, deep conversation. I bring Jesus into that gym.

Want to reveal Jesus in the world around you? Paul became all things to all men, that the gospel may land in remote places (1 Corinthians 9:22). Jesus made his entire life worship, and we can too, wherever you find yourself.

And before long, God reveals why you’re there: To love, speak, and heal. To journey with others, and shine His light into the souls of men and women around you. Even in that sweaty gym.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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Why on Earth are you here? Why are you here on Earth?

by | 20 February 2017, 8:38 AM

You’re saved. You’re redeemed. But honestly: Why on Earth are you here?

The answer: Redemption. You, in spite of your imperfections and shortcomings, are God’s vessel to renew a broken world.

The Bible reveals original created nature to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). But when you look at the world today, you don’t quite feel it: Overcrowded cities, vast injustice, environmental degradation, greed, blindness, pain. You feel powerless.

Do you long for restoration to God’s ideal? Are you compelled to do something? We’re told to fight for justice, champion a cause, pick up the fallen.

“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:20-21)

But redemption’s a tall order. All is futile – at least if you attempt to do it on your own strength.

Thankfully, God starts the process of reconciliation. And we’re first on the list. And thereafter, our responsibility is to reconcile all creation to God.

GOD’S INITIATIVE

In their years of slavery in Egypt, the Jews knew of their godly heritage merely as folklore. The truth is, God was experientially irrelevant to them.

Once Pharoah let the people go, God manifested Himself physically in fire and cloud, rock, sea, and the creatures. He gave them the Law. He instructed ceremonial washings, holy days, consequences for offences – whatever it took to teach them the meaning of holiness. His presence dwelt in holy places, and revealed Himself selectively to the chosen.

Likewise, God renews our minds to recognise His holiness. But His presence now extends to all mankind.

When Jesus went to Calvary, the veil was torn and God now pours His Spirit to all who receive Him (Matthew 27:51, John 1:12), regardless of merit, inheritance or past – amazing grace.

The fact that you’re even looking at a site like Thir.st, reading an article of this nature, this is a testament to this. Without the awakening impulse of God, man will not hunger for Him, let alone be curious. Let your restlessness among the cares of this world point you to the only One who can satisfy.

But awakening is merely the first step. Further restoration hinges upon our full-bodied response, and it starts with your will.

THE SACRAMENT OF LIVING

Consider not just what we do, but why we do anything at all (Romans 14:17).

When we embrace what A W Tozer termed the Sacrament of Living, we aggressively claim God’s restoration for our broken world. Like the seven traditional sacraments, it is an “outward sign of inner grace”. Unlike them, no walls contain it. Your whole life flows from grace.

Of course, this isn’t just about having solid doctrine. It is not heart over mind. Instead, heart, mind, body and soul are tuned to God. The Holy Spirit lights up every day, every deed and thing.

By purposefully stepping into a life of worship, we move into the frontlines of two distinct battles – one internal, one external.

No longer is spiritual reality confined to the disciplines of liturgy, church walls, festive seasons, or evangelistic events. Not that we should stop these things, but instead, all ordinary aspects of our lives rise to sacredness and become pleasing to our Father.

Such boldness is not without its challenges. By purposefully stepping into a life of worship, we move into the frontlines of two distinct battles.

The first is internal: The art of dying. We wrestle with our fallen selves – deny yourself, take up our cross and follow Jesus. And let’s be honest. It just isn’t easy to imagine how God could be glorified with some of the things we do, like doing the laundry, taking out the trash, working out, or your day job, for that matter.

The second is external: Awakened souls that pursue God will not be graciously released by the ruler of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4). Accused and tempted, we will face discouragement. Things may soon revert to the old normal when we become weary with doubt.

But we must push towards a new normal. Do not settle. Find peace in tension, but burn for more. Seek purpose in pain. Ask God to set you ablaze. This is renewal of mind. War. Transformation – the redemption of all things spiritual and natural.

CLAIM IT, BRING HIM IN

God must permeate through our entire being, all we do and think. Purposefully worship Him with all you do, no matter what, where, when, or how. Who? Only Him. Why? Only for His glory.

Thank Him for the times we catch a glimpse of Him, or hear His still small voice – every experience of Him is a gift. But such experiences don’t have to be few and far between.

The saddest part of modern Christian living is we taste and see once, then spend the rest of life exercising contentment.

Be the kind of Christian who gives Him the keys to every part of your life.

But you – don’t stop at pondering. Wrestle. Ask, seek, knock, that we may bask in unending torrents of His Presence. Boldly ask Him to set your heart ablaze for the renewed life. Don’t just passively receive His heart. Lay hold of it. Claim it boldly. Pursue.

Invite Him into the mundane, miserable and the ordinary. The bleak places of shame and self-doubt. Bring Him into your hopes, fears and dreams. Ask Him to tear down and rebuild.

Commit each day to Him in prayer in entirety and little constituents. Live out the rest of the day prayerfully, committing every little act to him and being confident that He accepts them as worship.

Be the kind of Christian who gives Him the keys to every part of your life. Live sincerely, and He will become your reality. Be the kind of temple whose altars burn 24/7 for Him, rain or shine.

“For such a man, living itself will be sacramental and the whole world a sanctuary.”

Welcome to the throne of grace. The greater veil has been torn. Now remove the one over your eyes. Step in.

Why on earth are you here?

Because this is your Father’s house.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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Are we defending the faith, or defending ourselves?

by Danny Chua | 15 February 2017, 12:13 PM

February the 15th commemorates the anniversary of the British’s surrender to the Japanese in 1942. Total Defence represents Singapore’s comprehensive defence strategy, relying not merely on military might, but also social and economic stability, among others.

I wonder what a “comprehensive defence strategy” would look like in the context of the Singapore Church. What best safeguards the local Church’s interests or even our existence? What values and conditions amplify, rather than compromise our witness for Jesus? Or what Biblical principles would ready us for – as the Apostle Peter says – a defence of the faith (1 Peter 3:15)?

These days, I hear from Christian groups and particular churches an increasingly audible voice emphasising the need for “righteous” state laws. It seems that legal reform or petition-protests are some of the more prominent ways modern Singaporean Christianity is known by society. We are recognised for by we claim to fight for – marriage models, gender identity, parliamentary bills.

I wonder if anyone else senses a slightly palpable anxiety to Christianise our country or societal context – are we trying too hard to be a “righteous nation”?

Let me humbly propose that the local Church must come to terms with not having to “Christianise” our Singapore. The Bible and the history of the Church has shown that although having a Christian nation is quite a good idea, the biggest problem is that we are bad people.

I suggest the true reason we feel the need to comprehensively legislate Christian-y “righteous” laws is that we fear alienation and persecution.

This must be shocking to know, but we Christians regularly forget/selectively ignore what Jesus said about what it means to be part of His Church: That living out the Way of Christ is actually not easy at all.

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own (John 15:18-19)!

When we do forget His admonishing encouragement, we begin to worry ourselves sick with somewhat moot questions like: How can the State ignore the Church’s interests if it departs from the existing (traditional!) legal recognition of monogamous marriage? How can the Church’s (democratic!) voice about abortion laws and foetal rights be ignored?

We regularly forget/selectively ignore what Jesus said about what it means to be part of His Church: That living out the Way of Christ is actually not easy at all.

Trust me when I say I care deeply about these issues and the implications of championing Christ in such conversations. But I write mainly to challenge our motivations and implore the local Church to search her heart.

Many of these contentious issues and the gradually changing socio-legal landscape terrify Singaporean Christians because we have lived in a relatively “peaceful” age. Here in Singapore, there’s hardly any tangible opposition too overwhelming that significantly challenges our Christian values and principles. Not yet, perhaps. Can you think of any?

So let’s ask ourselves: Do we merely long to preserve the status quo? Are we defending the faith or preserving ourselves? Is this our version of “comfortable Christianity”? Why not go all the way and have the Church write the statute books for the State?

As one of my favourite author-preachers, Paul Blackham, writes: “Think for a moment how utterly strange it would be to imagine Jesus of Nazareth lobbying Herod or Pilate for better marriage laws so that His teaching might find a more comfortable place in society. The Christians in the catacombs were not administering the states records.”

Yes, we are instructed to also pray for whatever conditions God deems necessary and rightful for His Church to grow here in Singapore – to “intercede for all who are in high positions … that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

Yet, we are seriously misled if we expect that the state and the statute books exist to soften our socio-political-legal conditions so it’s easier to be a Christian!

Let us to consider these issues against the backdrop of history as the Bible recorded it for our starting point.

From the beginning, Israel the ancient Church was called to be a light and literally the righteous (yes!) peculiar nation of the Living God witnessing of the coming judgment and the redemption found in the Promised Messiah (Deuteronomy 4:1-8, Isaiah 49:6).

But, very soon, as the entire Old Testament records, things went south. The Christian nation was a good idea – it was well, God’s idea! But the Christian nation was a forgetful and adulteress people.

Nevertheless, the Living God’s punishment on Israel remained part of His marvellous plan to shine His glory through them. So, even when the Babylon and Persian kingdoms lorded over Israel, we read of awesome dudes like Daniel and his friends standing steadfast for the LORD’s name in the face of the superpower kings of their time.

When Christ took on flesh, He was walking with His enslaved people swallowed by the darkness of the Roman empire (and mostly, ironically, by their own denial of God).

I recognise strong need for believers to represent Christ in the public sphere and speak for the welfare of the Church, and generally, the nation. But, at the same time, let’s not forget the Gospel narrative we’re so privileged to be a part of.

Our Early Church fathers witnessed for the Name of Jesus in the midst of severe Roman class divisions, daily bathhouse debauchery and extreme gladiator cruelty.

The multitude of New Testament churches were commanded to stand faithfully in the many (every!) pagan cities of first-century superpower Rome. Against socially and legally permissible norms, they were called to uphold steadfast marriages (for example, in the letter to the Ephesians), a perceivably impossible standard of sexual purity (among the Corinthians) and mind-boggling master-servant working relationships (see the book of Colossians) in an age of widely acceptable sexual promiscuity and abusive slavery!

Has anything changed?

Have we forgotten how many of our brothers and sisters all around the world today continue to live as the Early Church did – under ridiculously “unrighteous” laws and governments? Does their solution lie in a ousting the corrupt incumbent or political rehabilitation? Wasn’t that one of the primary misunderstandings the Jews had about Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God anyway?

Is it rights-based campaigning or the Christianising of states that has sustained the Church through the ages?

Again, I emphasise the strong need for believers to represent Christ in the public sphere and speak for the welfare of the Church, and generally, the nation. The Singapore Church’s firm stand on the casino/integrated resort and the recent gambling bill are good examples.

Yet, can we seriously rethink how we proclaim Christ and witness for Him in the public sphere? Is our imposition of “Christian morality” on others stopping them from hearing the Gospel? How many non-believer friends do you have who readily assume your “Christian” stance on homosexuality even when you’ve never discussed the issue with them? How many of such friends have actually engaged personally with Christ and His words through you?

As an author-friend of mine recently noted in his book, “Christians stand against many things. But no one knows what they stand for.”

Out of our genuine desire to see the God’s kingdom come and His will done, are our earthly battles ironically obstructing the very path leading to Christ? In navigating the world as offensive people of the Cross, is the local Church being defensive instead of resting in her eternal Defence who is Christ?

In closing, I’d like to speak into our anxiety: This earthly kingdom is not our country (this is not Home, truly!) – fix your eyes on the Better Country, that is a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:16).

Secondly, nevertheless, for anyone reading this who stands before governors and leaders for the name of Jesus … Be strong, endeavour mightily within the royal realms that our Heavenly Father has called you to shine in – but should you “lose” your battles, take heart too:

The Church shall never perish!
Her dear Lord to defend,
To guide, sustain, and cherish,
Is with her to the end:
Though there be those who hate her,
And false sons in her pale,
Against both foe or traitor
She ever shall prevail.
– The Church’s One Foundation

And if you struggle in a very personal way with such issues, be it certain painful conversations with particularly closed loved ones, remember the Apostle Peter’s exhortation to make a defence of our faith (1 Peter 3:15) was never meant to be a mindless shouting match. Rather, put on “sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” in the preceding verses. And take heart also, for “now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed”. (1 Peter 3:13).

 

The author likes reading with Charis, the rush of a Steph Curry three, and this quote from The Martian: “I am dying for something big and beautiful and greater than me.”

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Apologetics: More than the defence of your faith

by | 13 February 2017, 5:44 PM

The wave of liberal thought often leaves Christians stereotyped as ignorant and bigoted. But Christians who switch to self-defence mode might lose sight of the bigger picture altogether.

Raise a voice. Fly a flag. Sign a petition. March. Behold, the rise of the modern apologetics movement.

These days it’s easy to learn to address issues on suffering, science, philosophy and history. We convince others our minds are far more open than they think. Before long we have answers to everything others could throw at us. We become liberal. Progressive. Un-fundamental. Our “smart” friends no longer see us as fools, and your Christian brethren thank God for giving you life.

But while faith ought to be earnest and rigorous, apologetics sometimes distracts us from faith’s other elements. Regarding the art and science of apologetics, we need to get some things straight.

APOLOGETICS: DON’T SAY SORRY FOR THE SAKE OF IT

1. There will always be leaps of faith.

First up, regardless of worldview we’re all in the same boat. Perfect knowledge eludes even the most learned men, and the free-thinker isn’t quite free to think whatever he wants. But there are problems with what we do know as well.

I have found the majority of challenges from atheists and agnostics to be red herrings. They appear to be huge obstacles to belief – logical, moral or experiential – but when the dust settles, we find ourselves squabbling over the half-filled, half-empty glass. Answers to red herrings are likely themselves red herrings.

We could spend ages debating with our friends if the Old Testament God is a “moral monster”, the compatibility between evolution and creationism, or the existence of man’s sinful nature. We show that it’s expected (but not condoned) for Christians to be hypocrites, not all religions are the same, that the Bible is far more historical than a fairy tale, and our faith is more empirical than a giant spaghetti monster.

But to what end?

While counter-argument is important, it’s insufficient. We need to move from the concept of defence to ultimate reality, and express it in common vernacular.

The right language means we should not claim proof or absolute proof for our doctrine. That said, evidence exists: Jesus rising from the dead. The rapid expansion of the early church against all odds. Most of us subscribe to some form of morality and human rights. Most of us trust our own rationality.

Such evidence must be weighed and discussed without appealing to authority (eg “the Bible says”), because even authority is relative. My authority may not be yours.

While counter-argument is important, it’s insufficient. We need to move from the concept of defence to ultimate reality.

Throw aside the red herrings and we’ll likely conclude: Regardless of evidence, any worldview requires a leap of faith.

The metaphysical claims of Christianity must be taken by faith. It is not blind faith, though, because we trust the historical account of Jesus – recorded in text and alive in the Church. Jesus and the apostles gave authority to much of the Old testament. If we trust Jesus, we ought to trust in His teachings too. That said, we ought to know a little about how the Bible was put together before we start quoting “blindly” from it.

When we share our faith, we need to present Christianity alongside other worldviews. Challenge all, weigh the evidence, and see where conviction takes you. Ask for the mind of Christ, because indecision is not an option. You might end up with an unpopular choice, but philosophically, your conscience is clear (Acts 23:1, Romans 9:1).

2. Don’t just defend. Pursue, dig and build.

Our pursuit of God cannot be purely intellectual; without experiential relevance, faith itself becomes a red herring. Not simply the burning bushes and parted seas that compel some to belief, but also the experience of God in the everyday: Answered prayer, favour, peace and hope. The strength to love the unlovable and compassion for those who are different, victory over bondage and habitual sin, healing from brokenness, life transformation.

If your experience of God is regular and life-changing, your testimony grows.

Seek Him in the quietness of our devotions, and intentionally bring Him into every sphere of our lives: The thrills and the mundane, the success and the shame, the joy and the pain. It’s relationship; two-way communication. Acknowledge the gift of every breath and consecrate your entire life for His glory. From the onset, discipline is required. But when conviction grows, passion flows naturally.

If your experience of God is regular and life-changing, your testimony grows.

Share it with others, but don’t wear a mask. Telling people to be good testimonies suggests that the reality of our faith lies in our will. We might perform “not to stumble others”, but revert to old ways in solitude. We might fall into the trap of hypocrisy, where we act independently from our inner condition. We might start to believe God’s sovereignty subject to ours, as we will ourselves to outward transformation. Do not lose the major battles by throwing all your troops to the small skirmishes.

Pursuit must always precede performance. The journey isn’t always easy, but with God we are never alone. Don’t be distracted by the red herring. Fix your eyes on Him.

3. If you must defend, defend the right things.

We chase the final red herring when we fight the wrong battles.

Throughout history, churches split over what was seen as irreconcilable differences in Christology, doctrine (such as the canon, salvation, hell), and authority. As with any democratic process, majority wins. Large groups tussle for the “apostolic legacy”, while small groups are labelled heretic and jettisoned from communion.

While this looks like bad testimony, it really isn’t. In fact, it might even suggest the contrary. Misplaced zeal is often a distortion of noble conviction. We find this in the Crusades and other atrocities committed in the name of faith, and our personal sin. I’m not affirming these flawed representations of real faith. But the sober realisation is that good wine often hides within old wineskins.

These days the church is still seen as a political force, albeit a weakened one. Its voice, once having authority to dictate morality and declare war, now seems like the nagging swansong of conservative fundamentalism in an ocean of liberal, progressive thought. People are eager to stamp on dying embers, while well-meaning Christians try to preserve the institution.

Unfortunately, it’s frustrating to figure out a messier-than-ideal faith intertwined with power and politics. How do you choose which of two fundamentally flawed candidates to support? Sometimes the weight feels all too heavy. Society often moves contrary to Biblical morality whether we like it or not, and it’s disputable if a Christian ought to fight for every political decision in civil society.

BEWARE THE RED HERRING

The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you. (Luke 17:20-21)

Maybe you can’t see it. Perhaps the journey is hard not because you’re on the wrong track, but the right one. Don’t exhaust yourself in search of mythical red fishes. Look around and you’ll find an ocean of real fish. This is your arena.

Ultimately God doesn’t need defence. Neither does truth. Only defend your hopeOnly hold fast to Word and Presence. Let go of the weight that hinders and run hard after God’s heart. Forget the red herring; be a fisher of men.

In our quest we plough history, Scripture and the natural world for a glimpse of the Almighty. We plough in faith that we’ll one day know Him as we are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our redemptive apologetic should simply be to make Him known – not win every argument, legalise our morals, defend our reputation, get everyone into church or elect the next “Christian” president.

Above all, run with truth and love. By His grace, the red fish shall no longer distract us.

Forget the red herring; be a fisher of men.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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THIR.ST TALKS: Veteran Valentines share their secrets on how to make a marriage last

by | 13 February 2017, 4:05 PM

With increasing divorce rates, older marriages and fewer people opting for marriage, young couples may approach Valentine’s Day with weariness and trepidation.

It seems ever harder for a marriage to go the distance. But to prove that it can be done, #TeamThir.st has scoured the streets of Singapore in search of couples whose marriages have lasted the test of time against unfavourable odds.

How’d they do it? Is there a secret ingredient? Honestly, is it even worthwhile?

“If you live to 99, I want to die one day earlier – because I never want to live without you.”

We spoke to 8 couples who, cumulatively, have been married a total of 330 years. The “rookies” among this group of seasoned Valentine’s Day veterans have been married for 34 years, while the Yongs set the standard at 52 years of marriage.

Join us as we pick their brains for valuable nuggets of wisdom on love.

ON FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Jerry Chia couldn’t hold back his laughter as he recounted his first impression of his wife Samantha, whom he met in university.

“I was fresh out of the army and I first saw her as some cocky Hwa Chong overachiever. I thought I’d be able to sort her out,” said the trained counsellor. “Of course one thing led to another and I realised she wasn’t that bad.”

Jerry and Samantha Chia met in university and have been married for 34 years.

Samantha shot back: “You should’ve seen him. He had long hair. When I first met him, he had a hole in the back of his shirt. I thought to myself, ‘How could anyone be that sloppy?’ I only talked to him because he gave me a book that everyone wanted.”

“Please! That book cost just 10 dollars, and gullible you thought it was so valuable.”

The Chias tied the knot 34 years ago and have two sons.

ON “THE ONE”

Our veteran couples seem to agree that “The One” doesn’t exist – at least not in the rom-com sense.

Patrick and Geraldine Kwok believe the magic happens only after you say your marriage vows. “Once you marry, your partner becomes The One,” quipped Geraldine. Her face was radiant as she turned to the man holding her hand as she spoke: Her husband of 38 years, Patrick. “After a while, all the rationality eventually gives way to something you feel inside. It’s intuition.”

ON MAKING THE FIRST MOVE

Mr Yong, who turns 90 this year, is old-fashioned about how to make contact with a potential partner. Phone calls are still the way to go, he said.

Does replying too quickly make someone appear desperate? “No, you should reply immediately,” he said.

Mr and Mrs Yong have enjoyed 52 years of marriage.

His wife, watching her husband’s face closely, weighed in. “Can I speak for you, Daddy? He means that if you really love someone, you really don’t want to keep them waiting, right?”

Mr Yong beamed, both thumbs raised. Our question of desperation suddenly seemed rather petty.

“Back in the day we didn’t have Facebook or Whatsapp. If we really were interested in someone we had to pluck up the courage to ask for their phone number in person.”

Seasoned wedding solemniser Jeffrey Goh also said phone calls are the way to go. He recounted the moment he made contact with Alice, who was 10 years his junior.

“Back in the day we didn’t have Facebook or Whatsapp. If we really were interested in someone we had to pluck up the courage to ask for their phone number in person,” recounted Jeffrey, an officer in the military for over 20 years, while Alice was an air stewardess.

“Nothing says I like you as well as walking right up to a person and saying, ‘I like you’. I didn’t think she’d want an old man like me, but I told myself I had nothing to lose.”

“I asked for her phone number and thank God, we clicked immediately. No point pursuing someone who isn’t the least bit interested in you, but thank God she reciprocated.”

The Gohs have been happily married for 42 years.

ON ROMANCE VIA SMS

Of course, if your first contact comes in the form of text messaging, there’s still hope, said the Kwoks.

“You must learn to craft your text message properly,” said Geraldine, who said her background in marketing taught her the importance of effective communication.

Geraldine and Patrick Kwok have been married for 38 years.

“Use those emoticon things, but please – not too many hearts 💕 early on.” And, no, there shouldn’t be a rule that the boy has to approach the girl, she said, adding that girls need to be self-confident and have the courage to approach boys if necessary.

“We shouldn’t care so much about how other people think. Nothing to lose.”

Most of the couples we spoke to advised young people to be cautious when using dating apps like Tinder. They warned against putting too much information out there before meeting in person. But ultimately, to Jerry and Samantha Chia, “it doesn’t quite matter how you meet. It’s what happens next that that really counts.”

ON SHARED INTERESTS

Other couples met their Significant Other in the same line of work. David and Mary Pak met as nurses, posted to the same premises. Their relationship grew even after David went into a different professions thereafter because they were willing to make little sacrifices. This has kept their 47-year marriage fresh, they said.

“Over the years we continued to learn each other’s interests, and made an effort to cultivate those interests in ourselves so we’d always get along,” said Mary.

Mary and David Pak married 47 years ago at age 22.

Among the impressive and ever-growing list of couple-activities the Paks have tried their hand at: Hitting the gym together, Chinese calligraphy, painting and dances of various genres. To prove it, they offered to dance the cha-cha-cha for us on the spot.

ON REAL LOVE

How can you tell if someone really loves you?

“Actions speak louder than words,” says Mrs Yong of her husband of 54 years. She looked tenderly into his old smiling eyes. “For as long as I know, he’s been a good husband to me and father to our kids. That’s how he loves me.”

Yap Ah Eng complained that before she married Yap Chook Sung 51 years ago, he was very attached to her – but come Wedding Day, he didn’t even hold her hand. The same happened after each of their children was born, she said. He laughed out loud on hearing this, his wrinkles seeming to fold upon themselves with each laugh.

Mr and Mrs Yap just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

In Mandarin, he told us he was just extremely excited. His wife shook her head, but the corners of her lips were upturned.

ON BUSYNESS

Amid a culture of chronic busyness, Ronald and Angelic Lee – who work together in a recruiting agency – said the key to their 34-years-and-counting marriage is intentionally guarding time for each other

Despite tight work schedules, they’ve tried to eat every meal together for years. And they still create space for romance. “We make it a point to travel together –  just the two of us. It is important that we never take each other for granted. In fact, over Valentine’s Day we’re going to check out the Northern lights!”

Freddy and Agnes Tan, who have been married for 37 years, literally walk the talk.

Agnes and Freddy Tan have been married for 37 years.

Agnes suffers from eczema, and upon learning that stress is a possible trigger of eczema, Fred pledged to go for night walks with his wife to help her relax, sacrificing his sleep to do so. And when Agnes’ condition began to improve, Fred was glad to continue accompanying her.

ON SPEAKING THE TRUTH (IN LOVE)

“Honey, do I look fat?” Most men would keep their mouths shut, but marriage counsellor Jerry believes husbands should ask another question in response. “We should say, ‘Dear, would you like a nice or an honest answer?'”

In any mature relationship, sensitivity and truth come hand-in-hand, he said. “The mirror doesn’t lie, but we must always communicate that we love our wives regardless. It’s not just appearance, but also health.”

“Honey, do I look fat?”
“Dear, would you like a nice or an honest answer?”

It’s easy for spouses to live secret lives unknown to their partners – for example, meeting an ex for lunch, or who we connect with on social media. Navigating such a landscape as a couple requires a good deal of carefulness and communication, said Mary Pak, who added that it all boils down to trust. “I trust him. I know he will keep me in the loop, so I give him his freedom.”

Husband David added: “You must be sensitive. If you know your wife has a problem with it, respect her decision even if you don’t agree. She’s your wife, after all.”

Yap Ah Eng told us that when either of them finds themselves in the wrong, they immediately raise the issue and apologise to their spouse. By doing this, they effectively communicate that it is more important to value the relationship above the need to be right. She credits the love of God with keeping their marriage strong over the years.

ON RIDING OUT TOUGH TIMES

Facebook albums full of photos of happy moments – your wedding day, the birth of your children, family holidays – present a lopsided view of marriage. We know the spaces between these moments are filled by the not-so-happy, the ugly and the painful. While modern romantics might view these as ominous signs, the veterans understand their deeper purpose.

Jerry Chia gestured with his hands, two upward-pointing index fingers starting far apart, then drawing closer the higher they got. “In marriage, there is always compromise. You both give up a little more of yourself each day that together you may become something new.”

His two fingers finally combine and begin to move skyward as one. “Now you are one.”

It’s obvious that he’s been practicing this movement for a while now. “If not for Samantha, I would not be where I am today.”

Ronald and Angelic Lee work together and have been married for 37 years.

Ronald and Angelic Lee acknowledged there are always hard times, but said both had to know what they were committed to.

“We had our share of quarrels and fights. But once we married, we knew we were in this for life. The D-word was never a consideration,” said Angelic. Noticing our confusion, she clarified, “Divorce.” Beside her, Ronald nodded, then held her hand. To the Lees, the key to a lasting relationship is patience.

ON KEEPING THE ROMANCE ALIVE, POST-KIDS

Children are said to be the death of romance.

“It’s easy to forget that marriage is more than just parenting. At times we felt guilty about doing things without the children. But it’s important that we still make time for romance,” lamented Jeffrey Goh.

To David and Mary Pak, the missional aspect of marriage kept them on their toes. Said David: “We always had things to do. Raising kids, supporting the family. Now we just focus on enjoying life. Now I’m back in school, learning art. She cooks yummy food for me and we go dancing together.”

Jerry and Samantha Chia conveniently solve this problem by planning holidays in two phases. “Now that our kids are grown up, we travel as a family first – then we go off and do our own thing somewhere else.”

ON VALENTINE’S DAY

While Valentine’s Day is a good a day as any to celebrate their union, the couples warn against buying into an overcommercialised event.

“If you really love someone, every day is Valentine’s Day,” cooed Jeffrey into his laughing wife’s ears. “Why go to great lengths to prove your love? Some guys these days buy 300 roses for their ladies. I’d spread them out over 300 days to maximise the effect.”

Alice and Jeffrey Goh have been married for 37 years.

In fact, why be selfish about Valentine’s Day? Why not use it to spread the joy, said Patrick Kwok. “Of course we’re going to celebrate. And it’ll be a family affair. We’ll have some friends over as well!”

Mr Yong, whose memory is starting to fade as he approaches 90, said: “I don’t know what is Valentine’s Day. I don’t even remember how we met.”

He coughed. His wife of 52 years leant closer, and their eyes met. “I just know her face, and I know I love her.”

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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Loving our neighbour means caring for the environment

by | 6 February 2017, 2:07 PM

Without truth, our love is superficial and unintentionally destructive. Same applies in love of the environment.

Here’s the truth: Every week, multitudes of churchgoers step out of climate-controlled sanctuaries (well cooler than the NEA’s recommended 25ºC). Bins overflow with food wrappers half-filled with food, and newsletters printed just hours before.

These are just symptoms of the predominant urban lifestyle, centred around unsustainable and destructive consumerism. Single-use plastics and fossil fuels feed our relentless need for convenience, and comfort, even when doing God’s work.

If only we could see the dire consequences of our decisions: Mountains of trash each day, dumped and released into air, land and sea; incinerators running overtime.

For us urban-dwellers, especially in Singapore, it’s always been “out of sight, out of mind”. Specifically in Pulau Semakau.

THE REALITY

Collectively as a human race, these are our fruits:

  1. Oceans are being emptied of life. Divers lament the climate-change induced bleaching of their beloved coral reefs before their eyes.
  2. Forests are being cleared at a blistering rate and will likely disappear within 200 years.
  3. Our planet is warming up. The scientific consensus is that this is human-caused. Most glaciers bear witness to the extent of global warming-fuelled retreat, mostly within the last 50 years.
  4. The combined effect is that the earth’s “sixth mass extinction” event  is taking place right under our noses, with species dying out thousands of times faster than the historical background rate of extinction.

Most of us already know this to some degree. But few realise that when the planet suffers, humans suffer too.

With rising sea levels, desertification and other extreme weather triggered by global warming and the decimation of natural ecosystems, people are being forcefully displaced on an unprecedented scale. Many will perish.

Every week, multitudes of churchgoers step out of climate-controlled sanctuaries, well cooler than the NEA’s recommended 25ºC. Bins overflow with food wrappers half-filled with food, and newsletters printed just hours before.

While Singaporean privilege may help us brave the rising tide for now, the poor and marginalised elsewhere are suffering badly.

And it doesn’t matter who’s causing it. Everyone has to deal with the consequences. Collectively, regardless of faith, we are stuffing our world with trash while nonchalantly burning our only house down.

While developed nations have been called to take responsibility for our ecological catastrophe, how should Christians view the environmental crisis?

CALLED TO FIGHT FOR REDEMPTION

Because of the God-ordained sanctity of life (Genesis 1:27, Luke 12:6-7, Isaiah 49:16), protecting human lives should be every Christian’s fight.

Pure religion must involve caring for orphans and widows in distress (James 1:27). God’s heart is for the marginalised, which means His people should have compassion for orphans, widows, beggars, disabled, foreigners and climate refugees, among others.

Loving my neighbour as myself means empathy and compassion, like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). It means going the extra mile (Matthew 5:41), even if few go with us.

Christians traditionally have no qualms in doing humanitarian work – hospitals, orphanages and providing food aid – but must do more. Our current way of life is expected to produce millions more environmental refugees in the years to come.

But in this particular issue of social injustice, we have unknowingly become perpetrators. You and I are indirectly destroying the livelihoods, homes and health of people elsewhere.

LOVE IS A MOVEMENT

Let’s be philosophically consistent: It is morally outrageous to remain indifferent to climate change, as if we need to reap tangible benefits, or wait for some explicit command before we consider change. The simple equation is that allowing the crumbling of the world around us is a process that will lead to hardship and loss of life.

It’s not just about lakes and mountains, humpback whales and Sumatran rhinos. Where we can do something about preventable human suffering and death, we must.

The simple equation is that allowing the crumbling of the world around us is a process that will lead to hardship and loss of life.

So, fellow Christian, enough with the hypocrisy of token prayers and once-a-year activity of laying a few bricks in a foreign land. It’s time we did something that made a difference. It’s time we fight for the welfare of our fellow man, protect their fundamental right to life, and give that which costs us something.

To us, it’s mild inconvenience, as simple as bringing reusable bags to the supermarket, or reducing meat consumption. But to millions worldwide it could be a matter of life or death.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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The privilege of the bleeding heart

by | 4 February 2017, 12:03 AM

I write this to every bleeding heart called to the tall order of redemption.

Blessed are the poor in spirit …

To live in spiritual poverty. To live on scraps. To continually hunger and thirst. To have no prestige and little dignity. To depend on the benevolence of others.

… for theirs is the kingdom of heaven?

Today, as I stand at the dimly-lit altar at the end of yet another church service, my poorness of spirit does not come across as particularly blessed. Today it’s especially painful.

I often feel that I’m most in need of prayer, because while I’m supposed to pray for others, I might be depressed. A strange thing to say, perhaps? Hypocrisy, inadequacy, and an apparent lack of Sabbath commingled in a messy package. Unfit for service by the world’s standards.

I gave my all. I knew the tricks, strategies. I had faith … or so I thought. Ironically, I totally saw it coming.

That thick grey fog had been looming in the distance for months – anxiety, insomnia, spiritual dryness, numbness. Sometimes I adjusted my sails, hoping the wind would blow me to safety. I kept my eyes on the task at hand. If this was the path to redemption, I was all in.

I wanted to bash through it head-on. I was so blind. Now I see.

LITTLE MOUNTAINS, DEEP VALLEYS

I think back to when I was young and full of faith. Fresh out of Bible school and ready to change the world, I had it all planned. I was energetic, passionate and willing. Romans 8:31 was my clarion call: If God is for me, what can stand against me?

Audacity was my badge of honour, but I must’ve lost it to the waves. The deepest ocean trenches dwarf the highest mountain ranges.

First the headaches came. Then insomnia. Then anguish.

I think back to when I was young and full of faith. Audacity was my badge of honour, but I must’ve lost it to the waves.

I learnt to self-medicate not with the usual heathen debauchery, but with the armour of God (Eph 6:10-18): Prayer, books, community. And constantly repeating the optimist’s mantra: I am okay, this is normal, it’s expected.

But the darkness did not subside. Instead, it spread. Like a venom, it pulled me in, engulfed everything I knew, filled every space. Soon, every breath was agony.

I did the same things, but instead of leading the charge, I found myself crawling. Hope had abandoned ship, and with it went some of my trusted friends.

COUNTING THE COST, EVERY SLEEPLESS NIGHT

It’s not my first brush with spiritual dryness, but something had died inside. The seas no longer excite me. Stillness does not restore my soul. My heavy heart barely floats above the waves. Life goes on, but little voices tell me to give it up.

The gradual road to ruin is subtle, but its destination is unmistakable. The usual culprits are identified.

The zeal of the flesh (Gal 6:12) when “fear of men” supersedes “fear of God”. Impure motives – the trappings of empty religiosity and performance (Matthew 23). Or when we walk the road of pride (Psalm 10:4), believing in our ministerial indispensability amidst inept, half-hearted brethren.

We adopt saviour mentalities and, by faith alone, crucify everything, especially our health (physical, mental, and spiritual). We burn out.

A great mystery presents itself when we consider a kingdom fulfilled but not yet complete. Our darkness is put into perspective when we look to Calvary.

Perhaps you’ve counted the cost (Luke 14:28-29). We’re supposed to give up everything, possess nothing (Luke 18:22). You laid everything at the altar – but promised blessedness seemed lacking.

Maybe we romanticised everything. But when arms grow weary from pulling up empty nets and fellow sailors are lost to the waves, tell me honestly: Do you look back to shore with regret?

I confess: All the time.

We’re not yet pillars of salt (Gen 19:26), but often feel like one, especially on those cursed mornings when even getting out of bed is a trial of faith. Our accuser seizes every opportunity to sow seeds of death into our inner man through accusation and deception (John 10:10, 1 Peter 5:8).

As we wrestle through extended darkness, it is no longer enough to know in our heads that suffering is inevitable. I could prescribe my broken condition as inevitable, expected or even beneficial (Galatians 6:7-9, Hebrews 12:6, Matthew 5:10, 1 Peter 3:14). But as I wring my heart for drops of conviction, I can only manage a weak echo of Jesus’ first Beatitude.

YOURS IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

A great mystery presents itself when we consider a kingdom fulfilled (Luke 17:20-21, Matthew 12:28) but not yet complete (Luke 19:11). Until that completion, redeemed hearts and minds will always remain stretched between now and eternity.

Our darkness is put into perspective when we look to Calvary (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus went through unfathomable darkness to fulfil the will of the Father (Ephesians 4:8-10, Matthew 27:46). We read only of His earthly life and death, but His eternal mission must have been far more extensive. All of time is laid before Him like a tapestry. He moves through all and in all, weaving a timeless grand design.

While for now all I see are dimly-lit mirrors, one day I know will see Him face-to-face and know Him as I am perfectly known.

As we yoke ourselves to Jesus, God holds us through the darkest valleys of our kingdom-ward quest. Every tear that falls from your eye does not go unnoticed by your Heavenly Father (Psalm 56:8).

While for now all I see are dimly-lit mirrors (1 Corinthians 13:9-12), one day I know will see Him face-to-face and know Him as I am perfectly known.

BACK TO REALITY

I shake away the tormented reveries and the inner darkness subsides.

It’s been an especially rough week. Heart’s heavy. Soul’s a wreck. Mind is distant.

I look to the other leaders beside me. Thank God for them. But in all honesty, is it a facade? Do kind eyes and warm smiles hide tortured souls too? Do they feel blessed?

I’m supposed to pray for people, but my mind only knows my hypocrisy. I hope nobody approaches me.

Then a bespectacled boy steps out of the sea of bodies. He glances left, right, then looks down, before walking slowly to me with hands in his pockets.

I put on my warmest smile and hold his shoulder. “Hi there young man, how can I pray for you?” Part of me already scoffing at the expected request about exams, his latest crush, or some petty dispute with teachers.

He adjusts his spectacles and looks up with tired eyes that must’ve seen more than a child ought to see. A disembodied, shaky voice barely escapes.

“Erm… this sounds stupid.” He clears his throat. “You know that guy who’s thinking of suicide? That’s me.”

Let there be light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

I paused for a second. I struggled to hold back the tears. “Tell me all about it.”

It’s been forever since I felt Him holding me. But the great mystery was my privilege to hold another. I took a deep breath, and as I prayed the same words I prayed through every sleepless night, the first Beatitude seared itself onto my heart.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

/ kenneth@thir.st

Kenneth is best understood through his impassioned Instagram posts, composed in the deep of night when the tumultuous world finally lies silent. He probably prefers dogs to cats.

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If you can’t defend your faith, who will?

by | 2 February 2017, 8:28 AM

Time to ask ourselves the questions we keep asking others.

Why do you believe?

Maybe it’s all you know. From a tender age you found yourself in an environment of Sunday school, action songs, and beautiful friendships. Somewhere along the way, you invited Jesus into your heart.

Maybe it’s the warm fuzz that fills the deepest parts of your soul too used to the flames of torment, bitterness and frustration. Those songs about love, grace and peace bring you profound catharsis. Unlock the shackles. No more fear. You feel part of something grand and eternal.

Maybe the kindest person you know is Christian. Such a stable sense of identity, security and purpose – nothing shakes her. You want that for yourself.

Maybe you’ve seen miracles. Or so you think.

Many well-meaning Christians do the same thing to cynics. Afraid of open discussion, they consider disagreement or scepticism as a form of persecution.

But there comes a day these reasons (among others) no longer hold weight – because it’s no longer about what you hold on to internally, but what you say externally, and those reasons are held up to scrutiny but others who are not so charitable.

It could be when you enter college, or move abroad to work. There you encounter people – many of whom you love – with starkly different worldviews. Other explanations of the nature and origins of ultimate reality spring forth. Your testimony of miracles: Signs of divine power or deep ignorance?

The Christians you know, they never question. They’re politically right. Heads in the clouds. They make you feel dumb.

So you question the value of religion altogether. It’s history and propensity for racism, discrimination, oppression, violence. Good news? More like Brave New World.

Life unfolds. You now have options – work, parties, travel, a new hobby. Christianity becomes one little nagging voice in a raging sea of mysterious, beautiful things.

Then tragedy strikes. You’re hurt. God is love? Tell that to the starving children in refugee camps. Christianity suddenly seems harsh and obsolete. It’s concerned only with my sexuality, outdated traditions, censorship, and how I vote. How petty. Even if God exists, he doesn’t deserve my worship.

And suddenly you’re in a crisis of faith.

The cultural climate of today doesn’t help. Internet memes, humanist societies and New Atheist “evangelicals” all have something nasty to say about Christians or churches. Resentment and cynicism is planted in the minds of seekers even before they ever step into a church or inquire truthfully about Him.

Many well-meaning Christians do the same thing to cynics. Afraid of open discussion, they consider disagreement or scepticism as a form of persecution. Some remain so ignorant of scientific progress or history that they’d rather die as martyrs than read a book beyond their basket of confirmation bias. Support Israel at all costs. Reject evolution. Climate change is a hoax. No vaccinations.

Blind fundamentalism – religious or secular – is a slippery slope. With religion, it breeds bigotry, ignorance and self-righteousness.

So fundamentalists from both sides of the belief divide both play victim. Both preach to their choirs. Both get caught up in war games that prevent any further dialogue.

Come on, people. I’m not suggesting an appeal to moderation. I care little for where you lie on the conservative-liberal continuum, or how literally you interpret the Bible. I don’t claim to know more than you do.

I simply suggest we leave our ego at the door and start conversing like adults. Like friends. Like humans beings with rational minds – regardless of your underlying assumptions about that rationality.

Blind fundamentalism – religious or secular – is a slippery slope. With religion, it breeds bigotry, ignorance and self-righteousness. Among scientific communities, it feeds our imaginations with the metaphysical philosophies of science fiction which are as much a shot in the dark as anything else. On the whole, it numbs our ears and hearts to voices other than our own.

Unfortunately, like the most fundamental of zealots (think ISIS, Crusades, the Nazis), such gifted orators succeed in swaying the masses. Guilty parties exist on both sides.

Such new-age attitudes forget that doubt and healthy scepticism are an important part of an earnest faith for the atheist, theist or agnostic.

Real faith requires real conversation. In the words of famed, militant atheist Richard Dawkins: Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.

Don’t get caught in that trap. Recognise that the faith we are called to is subtle – you can’t quite put a finger on it. Yet you know its there. It’s earnest, sober, authentic and curious. It’s open to criticism, slow to speak and rigorous.

It is our responsibility and privilege to search out that truth, keep track of it, and share it with gentleness and respect.

The profundity of faith drives theoretical physicists to search out a Grand Unified Theory or Theory of Everything. It compels us to move with the sound of music, or fight against injustice. It believes in the hidden goodness of humanity, the sanctity of life, and that how we live each day truly matters.

Ask yourself, boldly and often: Why do you believe?

Beneath all smart arguments for and against, beneath all feelings, experience, empiricism and logic, believe because of truth. It is our responsibility and privilege to search out that truth, keep track of it, and share it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

It’s not a cultural war. Your persecution is overrated, especially in Singapore. And yet, the evidence for Jesus demands a verdict.

We all have a story that must be told. Prepare for the day you’re called to tell it.

No agenda. No pressure. It’s time for honest conversation. Your friends will appreciate it. The best part is when the dust settles on that debate, you’ll still be friends.