Here’s an honest thought: There are times I wish I was dead.
I’m not suicidal – I don’t want to kill myself – but I’m not averse to the idea of death: Wouldn’t it be nice to one day sleep and never wake up? It seems so peaceful, being detached from the pain and suffering on earth.
Life often seems like a cycle of repeated patterns: Sleep. Work. Eat. Repeat. There seems to be no end – no meaning to the things I’m doing. What’s the point of trudging through life?
A friend once told me that his purpose for living is to make the world a better place for the generations to come. He wants to leave behind a legacy like Edison or Einstein did. He wants to impact the world so that no one would forget he existed.
It’s a noble cause, but it doesn’t resonate with me. We can certainly improve people’s lives, but in the grander scheme of things, will we ever change the world?
I’m not the first to think about the meaning of life. King Solomon dedicated the entire book of Ecclesiastes to this topic alone. After spending 12 chapters lamenting the futility of life, he concludes in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 that the only purpose behind it all is to know God and keep His commandments.
To know God and to keep His commandments.
Similar reasons for living are found in other parts of the Bible. To have a relationship with Him (1 John 3:1); to grow in Christlikeness (Romans 8:28-29), to usher others back to Him before it’s too late (Ephesians 3:8-12).
Increasingly, I’m seeing that our time on earth is simply a period of preparation for our future in eternity.
So as I seriously questioned the purpose for my existence earlier this year, I was convicted that there must be a reason why I’m alive. There must be a reason for my life. And I concluded that life – our time on earth and what we do – is only meaningful in light of eternity.
Recently I attended an event where numerous Singaporean missionaries gathered together. There, the missionaries shared personal stories of what they’d seen and experienced, travelling to some of the most dangerous parts of the world to share the Gospel. Think the Congo in Central Africa.
The weight of reality suddenly came crashing down on me as I listened to story after story of prisoners, prostitutes and broken people.
That night, I felt a bit of the Father’s heart for His suffering children. I realised how myopic I had been all this while. I was so caught up with myself I failed to recognise there were many other lives out there waiting to be touched – desperate for salvation.
I’m not just talking about building houses for the impoverished or providing the starving with food. Those are important, but beyond meeting the physical needs of this life, what difference was I making to their eternity? Where would they go when they die?
A life lived for oneself is short, but a life lived for God reaps eternal value.
I know many people who work hard for achievements. For a legacy. But I’m not one of them. I don’t see the value of that, especially when death can so easily take it all away.
Unlike my friend whose focus considers only this lifetime, I want to leave those around me with something even death cannot touch or snatch away. I want to show them the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).
Because in the end, there’s only one thing that has an eternal impact: The lives we help to save and the souls we point back to God.
Nothing else has lasting significance. A life lived for oneself is short, but a life lived for God reaps eternal value (1 Corinthians 15:58). It’s counterintuitive, but I truly believe that within this manner of living lies the meaning of life.
It’s barely 8AM and Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal is already swarming with people. We’re there to catch the second earliest boat to Sekupang, Batam, where we’ll be visiting a community house in the slums called Noah’s Ark.
The youth director of Emmanuel AOG, who recently sang with S.H.E’s Hebe Tien on China’s Come Sing With Me, is no stranger to social media influence – he often speaks in various church circles and leads the FOPx worship team.
Isaac leading worship at FOPx Worship Night 2018
Isaac also happens to have bought the community house – which he refers to as an eco-learning shelter for the children who live in the slum – as part of his humanitarian work through Colours Global, a company he set up at just 23 years of age.
“I was in Batam with Habitat for Humanity, and one day when we were driving around we passed by all these schools that were not painted, and I thought to myself, it’ll be so easy to paint them – I could do that!” he tells this story with trademark candour.
“And I felt God speak to me then from The Message version of Matthew 5:14, that I was going to start a company to bring out the God-colours in the world.
“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill.” (Matthew 5:14)
“The second thing He told me was: ‘You’re going to buy a house’ – which I definitely didn’t have money for!
“So I asked for a sign if any of this was really from Him, and when I got into a cab on the way home a few days later, the song on the radio was ‘True Colours’! And that’s how I started Colours Global.”
Although there was no sign of “the house” for the next 5 years, Isaac wasted no time furthering his love for helping the less fortunate, partnering organisations such as the Singapore Girls’ Home and a non-profit in Batam that serves the children in over 40 slums.
Isaac spending time with little children in Batam (Photo credit: Isaac Ong)
From the outside, Isaac, who turns 30 this year, is easily a wonder boy of sorts with an unattainable track record for the regular Singaporean. But this assumption is quickly fading just an hour into our trip.
“When I say we, I often mean me!” Isaac confesses with a laugh when I ask him who’s the ‘we’ he keeps referring to with regards to all the work he’s been involved with.
“I went on a mission trip to the borders of Thailand and Myanmar at 17 years old and that’s where my eyes were opened and my love for the poor started.”
And it’s been one person’s show of love and kindness ever since. Mission trips across the poorest parts of Asia in between school terms, self-funded social movements to care for the marginalised in Singapore … Nothing extravagant – just simple acts of seeing beyond oneself.
Isaac on one of his mission trips overseas (Photo credit: Isaac Ong)
When we arrive at the port, he suddenly slips out of sight and returns with Rotiboy buns for all of us.
That’s where I realise that Colours Global is Isaac Ong.
Just one boy who’s made caring his career, be it caring for those in the media space where he’s also called to, caring for the hundreds of young people under his care in church, or caring for the child who runs up to him in a slum.
The good news is: Anybody can care. And for Singaporeans, all it might take is a 45-minute ferry ride.
A bird’s eye view of the slums on the outskirts of Batam
“Noah’s Ark is just a small part of a bigger project to bring education to the slum children in Batam,” Isaac explains as we travel to the slum district. “The organisation Colours Global partners with has efforts in over 40 slums, where volunteer teachers get on bikes and ride into these villages to give tuition to the kids there.
“Most of the children who are born in these conditions don’t usually go to school – their parents expect them to help support the family. So they’ll grow up fishing, farming … But in more dire circumstances it’ll be illegal activities such as prostitution.”
It was 2 years ago, during one of his trips to Batam that Isaac was invited to view a slum house that his friends from the partner organisation were interested in buying.
One of the slum districts in Batam
“They didn’t know what God had told me about buying a house 5 years before that,” he recounts. “And they weren’t trying to get me to invest in it either, because they knew I barely had any money!”
Buying the house would have given them space to set up a permanent learning space in that slum, where children from that community and neighbouring ones could gather daily for enrichment lessons.
But for Isaac, this stirred something in him from the first time God had spoken about Colours Global: “You’re going to buy a house.”
The slum house, barely the size of a studio apartment, cost about SGD$3,500. That would mean sacrificing a majority of Colours Global’s funds – that is, Isaac’s main livelihood.
Noah’s Ark, the community house that sits by the river at the edge of the slum
“But I knew in my heart that it was the house,” Isaac says, conviction in his voice. “So when I got back to Singapore I immediately called them to say I was going to write a cheque to buy it – because if I took any longer, I might’ve changed my mind!”
So at the age of 28, just as God had said, Isaac Ong bought a house.
The moment we arrive at Noah’s Ark, the children start to trickle in. It’s Saturday morning, so there aren’t any programmes on, but they’re clearly used to gathering there with Rudy, one of the two Bible school students who lives there to serve the community full-time.
“We call it Noah’s Ark because it’s the last house on the edge of the slum that’s by the water,” Isaac shares as we toured the little house that had been thoughtfully painted with animals walking two-by-two.
The little community house that is Noah’s Ark
“It’s also a place where the children can find refuge when they are in trouble.”
Setting up Noah’s Ark is just a start on taking the education initiative in the slums to the next level. Since late last year, Isaac has been assembling teams from Singapore to come over to Batam to hold 2-3 hour children’s programmes – also called Noah’s Ark – at the 40 other villages.
“It’s like a travelling circus where the kids can come down and learn music, drama, arts and craft, play games, which exposes them to English and math … And the parents get to see how their children respond to learning.”
Isaac hanging out with the community children at Noah’s Ark
“Many used to be quite unwilling to send their children to school, so in turn the children think that school is boring and go out to work instead.
“But with this Noah’s Ark programme that we bring into their community, the children have so much fun and when their parents see that, they realise that education is important and good for their kids.”
That’s how he hopes to be part of a larger move of God to save these children off the streets, and one day out of the slums – into a greater hope and future.
It’s an invitation open to all Singaporeans, Isaac tells us. And as usual, he’s keeping it simple: Follow him on Instagram (@isaacong) and he’ll be posting details on participating in the Noah’s Ark tour very soon.
“What’s one ferry ticket and 45 minutes to come to Batam, right?”
Saying goodbye to the Noah’s Ark kids
As we say goodbye, the children take our hands in theirs, placing the back of our hands on their foreheads as a sign of respect.
Moved by all that I’ve heard from him today, I find myself returning the action, which startles the little girl who’s greeting me. “This is usually done to someone senior,” Rudy explains. Someone of a higher status. But that’s not who I am, or what I want to be seen as: In God’s Kingdom, I am no higher than anyone.
And this is the spirit Isaac walks in, whether he’s on stage or in the slums, which makes him the true voice of a generation: He’s always serving, always loving.
So you’ve been going to church for sometime now and wondering where you fit into the greater story of God’s Kingdom. After all, we are part of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 4:12) and as part of the Great Commission, we are each entrusted with growing the Church (Matthew 28:19).
Where it gets confusing is how am I, as one person, supposed to? Where do I start?
Having mentored others for several years, I try to give people some starting tools to discover who they are and how they’ve been made to serve the Kingdom in broad strokes. One of these tools is knowing which part of God’s ministry you are strongest at, based on Jesus’ fivefold ministry mentioned in Ephesians 4:8-13.
“When (Jesus) ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men … And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God …” (Ephesians 4:8-13)
If you play role-playing computer games, this is easy to understand. When Jesus returned to heaven, He had promised to build His Church, His ekklesia, which wasn’t a building for people to hold services but a “faithful body of people”. As the head of the Church (Colossians 1:18), He passed us His ministry in five key parts or roles: Apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds (pastors) and teachers.
Each one of us has a role – not picked by us but by God – to play as we participate in His work. Each of us is also given different spiritual gifts and natural talents to enable us to play this role uniquely and well – but that’s a story for another day.
Before you take a simple quiz to discover what your role might be, here’s a short description of each of the Five – sometimes explained using a hand diagram.
THE HAND OF MINISTRY
1. Apostles: The thumb
We know Jesus started His ministry with 12 Apostles who were later tasked with continuing the work and raising up churches across the rest of the world long after He’d ascended to heaven.
The word apostle means “messenger” or “one sent forth”, which gives us a clue to what an apostolic calling entails. Like the thumb, the finger that allows us to grasp things, apostles are pioneers and builders who are gifted in establishing and upholding churches, ministries and movements.
2. Prophets: The index finger
Although we tend to think of prophets as those who can foretell the future, an wider understanding of prophetic ministry would be those who are gifted in carrying words of God for His people. In 1 Corinthians 14, the gift of prophecy is for upbuilding, encouragement and consolation.
Like the forefinger that points the way, prophetic ministry involves giving direction and correction. Besides being able to sense God’s word for particular seasons or situations, such as the prophets in the Old Testament, prophets may also be able to recognise His gifts and callings on individuals, giving them guidance too.
3. Evangelists: The third finger*
One of the better known roles of ministry would be the evangelist – the messenger who proclaims the good news and welcomes people to join the flock. Represented by the finger that extends furthest, evangelists are gifted in outreach ministry.
Everyone is tasked with evangelising to those not yet in the family of God, but evangelists are particularly strong in the area of preaching and witnessing – with a passion for winning others over to become followers of Jesus Christ.
* Yes, we know it’s commonly referred to as the middle finger.
4. Shepherds: The ring finger
The ring finger symbolises commitment to marriage, similar to a pastor’s commitment to those in his care. The word “pastor” literally means “shepherd”, and like people who rear and watch sheep, pastoral ministry involves protecting, leading, nurturing and feeding the flock (John 21:17).
Those with a pastoral inclination are faithful caregivers and parental figures, consistently guiding those under their ministry to places of sustenance, growth, safety and rest.
5. Teachers: The little finger
Last but not least, teaching is the gift of passing on knowledge and training others to apply their gifts well. Teachers, trainers and mentors do a lot of unseen work, but like the little finger, their job is critical to the flourishing of disciples of Jesus Christ, Himself referred to as rabbi, or teacher (John 3:2).
Teachers are not just well-versed in know-how or information, but gifted educators who are able to clearly and effectively express this for another’s benefit through writing, curriculum and lecturing.
The fivefold ministry is just a starting point for understanding our divine DNA and destiny. And rather than something we volunteer for, such as the ministries in church (e.g. ushering, worship, fellowship etc), these roles are appointed by God that can be confirmed by other believers in time.
Each of us is gifted to a different degree in all five areas, which means everyone is able to operate in the entire fivefold regardless of our primary strength. The fivefold quiz itself simply gives us an idea of what we may be better suited for in the process of advancing the Kingdom of God.
“None of us have got it together, but together, we’ve got it,” Canon J John declared with a smile as he took the stage. Sensing the crowd’s amusement at the witty line, he then proceeded to have everyone repeat it after him.
The international evangelist, whose real name is John Ioannou, was preaching on unity and evangelism at the Celebration of Hope (COH) Pastors and Leaders Gathering on July 24, 2018.
In commemoration of 40 years since the Billy Graham Crusade in 1978 and Singapore’s 200th year since our founding, COH culminates in 3 days of rallies at the National Stadium next year.
“One of the great things about this vision and initiative is that it brings us together,” said the 60-year-old Canon, who brought well-known preacher Christine Caine to Christ in her younger years.
“No one monopolises God’s truth. Now we think we do, but there is no one church here that monopolises God’s truth. For the sake of the lost and for evangelism, we are happy to work together.
“We’re not focusing on our differences, we’re focusing on what we have in common, and what we have in common is good news – the Lord Jesus Christ who offers us our hope for the future.”
Canon J John at the National Stadium, where Celebration of Hope will be held
He then posed a question to the few hundred Singaporean pastors and church leaders seated in Saint Andrew Cathedral‘s New Sanctuary: What are we?
Then came the answer: “We are global Christians with a global mission, because we have a global God.” Canon John then turned to Matthew 28 and read out the Great Commission. In particular, he zoomed in on the word “go”.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)
“I’m Greek, I’m bilingual — I read the Bible in Greek. And lots of people like to get up and say, ‘In its original Greek, (this verse) means this’ — and it usually doesn’t,” he said to a burst of laughter from the audience.
Then, serious again: “The Greek word for go, means go. We need to go!
“Many of our churches encourage people to go on a missions trip. I do too: I say walk next door – it’s cheaper. You don’t have to spend a year fund raising. Walk. Next. Door. That’s the best mission trip any of us can go on. Why? Because people are lost.”
Young people praying for each other
Canon John then recounted a story about his son: “Killy and I, we have 3 sons. When our eldest son was just 2, we lost him in a department store. We looked everywhere for him, but he had disappeared!
“What a terrible feeling to lose your child. And we’d only just seen him 30 seconds ago.”
In his story, Canon John explained that he’d rushed to the reception to ask for the shopping centre’s microphone, and when the lady in charge hesitated on letting him use it, he’d jumped over the counter to get to it.
When we’ve seen the Cross, the love of Christ compels us.
“I couldn’t care less what people thought of me,” he remarked. “My son was lost! Did it matter to me what they thought? No! My son was lost and I would do whatever I could to find him.
“That’s the analogy we find in Scripture that encourages us to seek and save the lost,” he said.
Once again with a twinkle in his eye, he continued with a play on words: “A missionary is not someone who crosses the sea, a missionary is someone who sees the Cross.
“When we’ve seen the Cross, the love of Christ compels us.”
Canon J John preaching at the COH Pastors and Leaders Gathering
Turning to Acts 1:8, Canon John explained that when we receive Jesus, we receive His Holy Spirit which empowers us to be witnesses.
“The Greek word for witness is marturia, from which we get the word ‘martyr’,” he said solemnly. “Many of our brothers and sisters have been martyred, so it’s not going to be easy to witness – you’re giving your life.”
In underlining the need to do whatever it takes to get people to Jesus, Canon John then referred to Mark 2:1-12: “I love the story of the four men who took their friend on a stretcher to see Jesus Christ.”
Let’s lift the roof of our thinking to get people to Jesus.
In the well-known account, the house was so full that the men couldn’t get in through the door. Canon John pointed out how incredible it really was the cripple’s friends to then climb the roof, open a hole large enough in that roof, and lower a full-grown man on a stretcher down to Jesus.
“How did they do that?” he exclaimed. “Listen: Let’s lift the roof of our thinking to get people to Jesus.”
“God uses every way —prophecy, prayer, praise, proclamation — to reach the lost. So we too must do everything that we possibly can to get people to Jesus.”
Youth gathering to worship
Canon John then spoke on the importance of having evangelism as a mindset, quoting 2 Timothy 4:5: “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”
“Do the work of an evangelist,” he repeated. “He didn’t say stop doing the work of a church leader and become an evangelist.
“What he said in the original Greek is to lead the church as if you are an evangelist.
He didn’t say stop doing the work of a church leader and become an evangelist – lead the church as if you are an evangelist.
“We’ve got to think like an evangelist. So that your whole DNA and your church’s DNA is all about the people who don’t come – as well as the people who do come.”
Canon John continued, “I’ve been in the ministry for 39 years and my conclusion is this: Evangelism is the practice of praying, caring and sharing. These are things we need to do anyway. We are a church who prays, cares and shares!
Praying together at a worship event
“I want you to start in the place of your greatest failure. Where is that for you? For your congregations?
Then, he said, “Cultivate your web of relationships. To reach the world, you have to first reach your world.
“I know some people have been called to bypass ‘Samaria’ and ‘Judea’,” he qualified. “But these are the 2%.”
“98% of us have been called to reach the world by reaching our world. That’s what we need to do as leaders and encourage the congregation to do!”
To reach the world, you have to first reach your world.
“You know, 500 years ago a theologian called Erasmus translated John’s gospel,” he shared.
“This is how he translated John 1:1: ‘In the beginning, was the conversation.’ I really like that. All we are doing, is keeping the conversation going.
“We’re praying that God will help us to share the good news, to articulate it — to keep the conversation going.”
In closing, Canon John addressed the heart behind the coming year of evangelism. “Before somebody becomes a Christian, they’re in negative territory. The negative territory goes all the way back to -100.”
Canon John said that as we pray for them, care for them and meet felt needs, that number changes for the better: “I know God can take a -100, and take them like that. But he often doesn’t. He woos them.
“And we each have a part to play in helping people on their journey to faith.”
One National Stadium, 50,000 in seating, 3 nights of proclaiming the Good News.
“That’s 27,500 Christians every night,” Canon John said knowingly. “Each one bringing one friend.”
Last month, I boarded a bus not knowing where exactly it was going to take me, or what to expect over the next 3 days. I had signed up for a church camp in China almost 4,000km away from home.
I second-guessed my decision a lot, and would probably have backed out if my air tickets hadn’t already been booked. Then I remembered an old, bookmarked, back-of-mind thought that I’d once entertained: “What if my faith didn’t work overseas?”
Surely God is not limited by neither geographical boundaries nor language – but what if I was? What if my faith and my understanding existed in a bubble that would not survive outside of the Church community I was comfortable with?
Years ago, I met a lecturer who wrote a paper about how music and a carefully-engineered atmosphere combined to manipulate converts to join the Christian faith – it’s all in the emotion.
He was the same lecturer who first taught me that correlation does not always mean causality – emotional music and a great atmosphere are not the enemy – but I think if I’m not careful, I can limit my faith to emotion and familiarity.
On the bus journey to the campsite, I began to feel the gap in our cultures through the conversations taking place around me. And it took much mental effort to bridge that gap to process words, humour and slang from a culture I was not used to and a language I had not mastered.
But I figured I would just try: Cultures can be bridged, seas can be crossed and differences can be worked out with willingness. I would learn it’s not impossible, the man seated behind me demonstrated that to me.
Fred praying over one of the China church brothers at the water baptism.
Fred* is a Singaporean who, for many years, has taken up the task of loving the people of China and building the Church there for the last 8 years. I didn’t envy his task, imagining that it must have often felt lonely and trying.
The next day, I was around the meeting hall when I saw a crowd gathered outside the building, around a very small inflatable pool.
They were getting baptised! In Christianity, water baptism symbolises the believer’s acknowledgment and total trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. As the believer goes in and comes out of the water, it is a symbolism of their identification with Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.
A young boy who was in his early teens had just stepped out of the pool that was a tad too small for him, and Fred prayed over him in Mandarin: “Help this boy to escape from the selfish desires that so often traps our youth.” He was praying from 2 Timothy 2:22 where the original Greek word for desires (epithumia) means a great desire to do something – a strong longing directed at an object. These desires can run along the fault lines of impatience, love of arguing and/or unrestrained lust for anything the soul craves.
… emotional music and a great atmosphere are not the enemy, but I think if I’m not careful, I can limit my faith to emotion and familiarity.
“The heart wants what it wants” is an anthem for young people who have yet to be acquainted with the dangers of these desires. Such selfish wants wage war against a person’s soul, and that’s why it was such a beautiful sight to see Fred pray that prayer of freedom over that young boy.
And as Fred prayed, his words stirred something in my own heart. I saw his task in a new light: What a privilege it is to be able to pray for others – the next generation especially – to live life knowing that they are loved by God and to pray that they come increasingly free from the trappings of selfish desires that sink them into conflict.
When I deemed Fred’s task unenviable, it revealed my heart’s reluctance to be committed to such a task. And in that moment, I found myself a little more free from the trappings of what I thought a good life looked like.
The China church gathered around to pray and worship together after the water baptism.
As I left my bubble of familiarity, I found God and His people in places I had never been before. There is a fullness – and I’m only just scratching the surface – in walking together with God, no matter where it is, as long as it is where He is.
When I worried that my faith would not work, I forgot that God is infinitely greater than what I can comprehend. But more importantly: God is good to His people. And because of that, my faith and confidence in God can stand.
If you’ve wondered if you should go on a trip somewhere to contribute to church-planting efforts or just to tell someone about the love of God, you might find that the trip will do more for you than what you think you can do for others. I found it helps not to limit what God can do.