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Why I left Instagram

by | 10 August 2017, 1:52 PM

My Christian brethren might give me some side-eye at this confession, but I’ve never fasted.

In my church, fasting season every year stretches from July 1 to August 9. That’s 40 days leading up to National Day – 40 days, because that’s the number of days Jesus fasted for spiritual preparation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2).

I just never wanted to do it.

After more than 20 years in church, I probably know all the best reasons for fasting, and yes, of course I agree that it’s a great spiritual discipline. But for me, it was such a hassle to skip socialising at mealtime, risk a gastric attack or just stop work to pray.

So I honoured the fasting season as much as I could without forgoing meals, such as going without meat or solid foods. I recall trying a computer fast – but only because I had to study for exams anyway.

In recent years, I focussed on the “praying” side of things, spending my morning commute in silence, reading and praying along to the 40-Day Fast & Prayer Booklet. That extra time spent in prayer did wonders for my spiritual focus and hearing God’s words in season for me.

I just thought that was good enough.

But this year, a specific challenge came to my attention from different sources: Fast from Instagram. Over and over, in the middle of various conversations, people would look at me knowingly and suggest it.

My life was all about the ‘gram. All 5,818 posts since 2010. It was my journal, my message board, my pulpit.

My newsfeed was my community. The people who shared life in short bursts and pretty pictures from their daily adventures, heartfelt ramblings and little inspirations. We were each others’ entertainment channels and motivational speakers. We were family.

Only best friends tell each other everything, right?

At the height of my frustration to restart and move on from the past, I deleted the Instagram app with trembling fingers and replaced it with the BibleGateway one.

But like an episode on Black Mirror, the dystopic hyper-reality TV series, the Instastory of my life became an idealised documentation of what I wanted to believe my life looked like.

With a vulnerable but well-angled caption, bad days could become good days. With the right amount of VSCO editing, good days could become great days. If we followed each other and liked each other’s photos, we were friends – even if we never actually spoke in person. And imagine if we left comments

After a while, as real life took a detour into the valley, I found the two worlds stretching further and further apart, like mozzarella on a pizza. I wanted to be #real about how I was feeling so that others wouldn’t feel alone in their own suffering or think I lived a perfect, pain-free life, but on an open platform like Instagram, you aren’t actually expressing as much as you’re composing.

Nothing is really that raw.

After hearing how #triggered I was getting over the constant comparison, ensuing FOMO and my unspeakable, offline struggles, my real-life best friends had had enough. “Get off Instagram for this year’s 40-Day Fast & Pray,” they told me. And when I protested, asking how I was going to document an important wedding and upcoming trip to Hong Kong: “You can always post when you get back on it.”

So after much resistance, but also at the height of my frustration to restart and move on from the past, I deleted the app with trembling fingers and replaced it with BibleGateway on July 9.

I was late to the fasting party – not quite 40 days – but this was the challenge: One month of no Instagramming, from July 9 to August 9. Game on.

So that’s where we are now, the day after National Day. It’s been 31 days since I left Instagram, and the thought of downloading and reopening the app is strangely as daunting as it was to delete it. Because in my deliberate departure, I learnt 3 big lessons that will stay with me longer than any social media footprint would.

3 LESSONS FROM MY INSTAGRAM FAST

1. SOLITUDE IS SCARY
… when you’ve forgotten how to be alone

The first night I went without Instagram, I had a meltdown. By bedtime, knowing I couldn’t write something sad but well-scripted on my Instagram, the weight of my aloneness was crushing.

Nobody will know I’m suffering!

But it was the next realisation that broke my heart: I was just as alone as I had ever been, with or without Instagram.

I’d never cried so hard, but the revelation made me all the more determined to reclaim my solitude – and my sanity.

2. SILENCE IS SURREAL
… when nobody knows where you are

On July 16, I slipped out of the country on my own, telling as few people as I could. It’d barely been a week since I’d started the fast, but I was actually excited to push my new-found aloneness to the next level. On one of the days, I made my way to Hong Kong’s Dragon’s Back Hiking Trail and trekked in silence up the stone-strewn hills.

If this had been any other trip, I probably wouldn’t have done it alone, and definitely not without Instastorying my entire journey.

But as I walked on in almost 100% unadulterated, no-longer-scary solitude, even my time with God felt different. For once, it was truly just Him and me. Not Him and me and my 661 followers. And when I stopped to survey the rolling green slopes, coastal winds billowing past me, I knew He was closer than He’d ever been to my once-distracted heart.

3. STILLNESS IS SWEET
… when your soul is at peace

As the end of my fast drew near, my cell leader asked me what filled the void left behind by Instagram. “Facebook,” I replied with a laugh. It was a joke, but I wasn’t entirely innocent. Albeit a poor one, Facebook had sometimes been a substitute for my idle time.

One night, when I could feel the sadness welling up again, I found myself reaching for my phone and proceeding to scroll through my Facebook feed mindlessly for the next hour. But when I’d put it down, tired enough to fall asleep quickly, everything I’d been feeling just came rushing back in.

That weekend, I heard a powerful message from the pulpit: “When God is doing a new thing in your life, expect birthing pains. People tend to shrink back when they feel pain, but in labour, when the pain comes, the doctor will tell you to push. So don’t let the pain you’re feeling now paralyse you. Push!”

Push. Pray Until Something Happens. The next time I felt the peace within disrupted, I reached for my Bible and stayed with God until the stillness returned.

Fasting brings to mind the story of Jacob wrestling with God (Genesis 32:22-32). Like the hip bone, there are certain things in our lives that we heavily rely upon. They are core support structures within us, and when these are displaced or broken, the way Jacob had his hip wrenched from its socket, we find ourselves in great pain and discomfort, unable to function like we used to.

But in that upheaval of what we depend on, with everything suddenly out of balance, we find ourselves clinging more tightly than ever to God – just as Jacob did.

“When God is doing a new thing in your life, expect birthing pains. People tend to shrink back when they feel pain, but in labour, when the pain comes, the doctor will tell you to push. So don’t let the pain you’re feeling now paralyse you. Push!”

In fasting, we come face to face with the “hip bones” we’ve created for ourselves, our coping mechanisms and security blankets. We could even deny ourselves of them, or of food – our greatest need – to bring us back to that place of total dependency. Hips out of sockets for 40 days, clinging to God like never before.

We’ll find that we don’t depend on them quite the same way, even when the season ends.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6)

The fast has been instructive enough to make me wonder what I’ll see if I gave God the full season of 40 days to teach me what He wants to teach me. So I may have started late, but I’ll go into extra time now, till August 19.

In an age of insta-gratification, what’s another 10 days?

/ joanne@thir.st

Joanne is a bundle of creative energy commonly heard before she is seen. She believes in the triune power of good conversation, brilliant writing and bold ideas. She also likes milo.

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Don’t follow your heart

by | 19 February 2018, 11:17 AM

Don’t follow your heart.

Sure, most hearts do a fine job of pumping blood to keep us alive. But while it sustains life – it doesn’t lead us well at all. 

“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

I’m sure you’ve felt the fickle nature of your own heart before. Right when we think we finally know what our heart wants – we’ve changed our minds by the next moment.

Our minds rationalise and soothe our easy hearts that it’s OK to run away from things we hate or fear. So we escape, and strive to find fulfilment in all manner of things.

Consider what’s frequently right at your fingertips: Instagram, Facebook, Netflix, YouTube – porn. These are so easily the well-worn holes which an escapist crawls into willingly.

But some holes are pits.

“I just wanted to disappear. Specifically, I wanted to disappear to an isolated and desolate place that reflected how I felt inside.” said Holly Baxter, who spent five weeks along the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia to escape social media.

Has your heart ever felt like escaping? You may even have thought of doing something like Baxter. I suppose that’s one way of being in touch with ourselves – by being somewhere which encompasses our inner turmoil.

 

Here’s the point: What really needs to be changed is what’s happening on the inside.

If we’re restless and constantly on the run, it more than likely reflects an absence of peace within. And sure, life can be difficult – but life is difficult.

The real question is: What do you have in this difficult life that’s unshakeable (Psalm 62:6)? My gentle words are that you find it, because a day will come when what your whole life stands upon is tested.

There is just one thing in this world worth pursuing. It is Jesus Christ – only Jesus satisfies!

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:25-26)

We were made to walk with God, we who are so prone to walk away. I want to tell you with all my being – shout it from the rooftops – that He is enough. We have all we’ll ever need in God.

We cannot go wrong by desiring Him, so let us choose and love Him.

/ fiona@thir.st

Fiona is secretly hilarious and one of her dogs thinks so too. She loves a good chat with strangers, store assistants, and fluffy dogs.

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Belinda Lee: My mother’s unwavering faith

by | 15 February 2018, 3:37 PM

As she recalled her mother’s final days in her 6-year-long battle with cancer, Belinda Lee took a moment to compose herself before she continued.

The former Mediacorp actress and host spoke of moments when her mom would get up in the middle of the night, when she was in great pain, to cry out to God.

“At that time, she was already on morphine and was very weak. I don’t know where she got the energy from, but she would shout with all her strength for God to take her home.”

“She would cry out with all her might like this: ‘Jehovah, I beg you to bring me home.’

“It was then that my family knew that she was ready to go home. It was painful for us to let her go but we knew that she was ready,” Belinda said.

It was the beginning of the end of a journey which saw her mother go from being anti-Christian to embracing the love of Jesus.

Said Belinda: “My mom, who told the whole world that she would never become a Christian, received Christ when I was in Bible college, and she actually got water baptised on her own without telling the family.

“To me, that shows how true her conviction was, because she willingly did it on her own without pressure from anyone – she did it on her own accord because she truly wants to know who this amazing God is, and she welcomed Him into her life.”

(Belinda Lee’s sharing on her mother’s faith begins at 40:44 in this video)

Belinda shared that her mother, who was illiterate, would pray for God to teach her how to read the Bible.

And He did.

“A miracle happened one day. She came to me beaming with joy, sharing that God answered her prayer and she could finally read the Bible! Not every work, but she was able to at least understand the gist of what she was reading.”

Belinda found it hard to believe, but was encouraged by a neighbour, who said the same prayer had come true for her own elderly parents. “She told me that I have too little faith in God!”

And the way her mother spent her last days stood out to Belinda.

“A week before she finally took her last breath, she instructed one of my aunties to cook a scrumptious breakfast to serve her friends, the members, and the pastors of the Chinese Church she was attending – because that was what she used to do when she was still mobile.”

Belinda recalls her mom saying this to her in Hokkien: “Belinda, I wasn’t educated and I’m not good at studying, but I know how to cook. With my gift, I hope that I can serve God and His children.

“My mom was a dying women, but while on her deathbed, she wasn’t thinking about her own needs or blaming God. All she was thinking about was how she could continue serving God and His people to the very end of her life.

“Mom did not fear death because she believed with all her heart that our Abba Father was going to welcome her with open arms and personally lead her through the white gates of heaven when she meets Him one day.”

“I was told I was doomed to fail”: Belinda Lee’s journey from insecurity to purpose

/ fiona@thir.st

Fiona is secretly hilarious and one of her dogs thinks so too. She loves a good chat with strangers, store assistants, and fluffy dogs.

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Porn and the things I’d rather love

by JH Kwek | 12 February 2018, 9:16 PM

It has been said that there are two types of men: Those who watch porn, and liars.

The truth is I belong to both categories.

My struggle with pornography began when I was 11. I was surfing the web when I stumbled onto some highly sexualised anime clips. Ever since then, this thorn, this drug, this corruption has been with me.

I’ve tried my whole life to break free, only for each attempt to end in failure. I got really good at lying about it though. Even when I confessed this sin to my cell members, I managed to phrase it in a way that made me look like the victim – like I was really trying my best and somehow that was enough.

It was like there was no real consequence to remaining in my addiction, as long as I cried and looked like I didn’t like it.

But I did.

I loved it: Every lustful moment in the toilet, every fantasy fired up by sensual Instagram posts, every filthy thought – I revelled in all of it. I knew the sinfulness of my addiction, but I didn’t really believe it. I was deluded, a man who thought nothing of eternity and only of the momentary high that came each night I gave in to my lust.

The struggle against pornography is often portrayed as a noble war, as if we’re righteous creatures born into a broken world, battling the forces of lust that seek to ruin us.

But we are not righteous creatures. We are dead creatures (Ephesians 2:1). We don’t just sin – we love to sin. We delight in it. We take pleasure in it. By ourselves we are so far from righteousness.

When God shook me out of my stupor, I finally saw how great my sin was – but I also had my eyes opened to the vastness of His grace.

The struggle against pornography is not a mere struggle to stop loving porn: It is a struggle to love Christ – and love Him more than anything else. So my problem wasn’t that I loved pornography – my problem was that I didn’t love Christ.

How then can a dead man love Christ? He can when he is brought to life.

My problem wasn’t that I loved pornography – my problem was that I didn’t love Christ.

And that was exactly what God did for me. In the quiet moment of a ministry retreat’s worship session, I read Ephesians 2 and became utterly convicted of my sin and sinful nature.

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved …” (Ephesians 2:1-5)

There and then, I repented, and asked God to bring me back to life.

And He did. He called me back to life.

That’s the power of the Holy Spirit. As the words of Ephesians 2 filled my mind, He began to convict my heart of my very real state of sin, that I was indeed dead in my trespasses and sins, carrying out the desires of my body and my mind, just like the rest of mankind.

But the same Spirit who convicted me of my sin also revealed to me so mercifully and lovingly that God, because of the great love with which He had for me, was calling me out of death in my sin to a redeemed life with Jesus Christ. It is by grace I have been saved.

There are so many of us – men and women – who struggle with an addiction to pornography. I still struggle with it. Porn is undeniably pleasurable. Speaking from experience, it is one of the strongest and most addictive pleasures I’ve ever come across.

But I can also speak from experience, that the cross of Christ brings a permanent joy and satisfaction that pornography can’t even touch. How blind I was! And how blind I still can be!

God gifted us priceless pleasure and fullest joy in His Son – yet we reject Him for worthless things. Father, forgive us!

A dead man can only love Christ when he is brought to life.

The cross of Christ brings a permanent joy and satisfaction that pornography can’t even touch.

You may seek love in pornography, relationships or achievements – after all, we were designed to receive love. But there is a better way.

It is the love that God gives to us. It’s the same love that caused Him to send His only Son into the world, so that we who were doomed to die might live through Him. All this while we did not yet love Him. Our Father loved us, and sent his Son to pay our debts (1 John 4).

I pray that God brings you back to life and opens your eyes, that His Son is no longer just words on a page to you, but the very real and tangible pleasure that surpasses all other pleasures.

A heart full of Christ has neither need nor want of porn. Help us to want and need you God – bring us back to life!

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Tired of facing the usual questions at CNY?

by | 12 February 2018, 2:57 PM

You’ve always loved Chinese New Year (CNY). Meeting family and friends, stuffing your face with calories, receiving hongbao – what’s not to like?

Yet the older you got, the less excited you became for the season. Somewhere along the way you traded the enthusiasm for apprehension.

Well, you’re looking forward to the hongbao and the food … It’s the conversations you’re obliged to have that you dread.

  • How’s your job?
  • Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?
  • When are you getting married?
  • When are you having kids?

It’s the questions, man. Every year they ask the same questions and every year you give the same answers. It’s old.

So maybe that’s one reason you dread CNY, because of the exhausting questions that add or subtract value –assigning identities – to who you are based on your answers about your job, wife or life.

But you know, there really is only one question worth asking at the end of all these other questions.

Who am I?

You are more than your job, more than your relationship status, more than your bank account, more than what you’ve achieved or what you’ve not, more than how you look or how you dress. Dear friend, you are more than your successes and your failures, more than your reputation – more than an “ENFP” or an “ISTJ” or any combination of letters or numbers someone or something assigned to you.

Why? Because of who God says you really are.

Don’t laugh. You are intrinsically valuable – even if you’ve spent your whole life believing you’re not. This is what God says: You are fearfully and wonderfully made by Him (Psalm 139).

You were designed with intricate thoughts that outnumber the sand grains by the sea, woven tirelessly together. You were made a masterpiece in God’s image (Genesis 1:27)!

You were made fit to walk with angels on streets of gold (Revelation 21:21). If you are a child of the Most High God, then you are an heir to the King (Romans 8:16-17).

There is so much more to life than just going through the motions, dying and being buried in the earth. Snap out of the stupor and realise there’s more to it all than just daily putting in eight hours of work and showing up on Sundays.

There’s a more abundant life for you just waiting to be lived.

If you want this better life, God is waiting to give it to you. If you seek Him first, I promise you that He will show you the better way. But it’s a risk. I won’t hoodwink you: You must throw away the life you had before, to gain one worth keeping.

This isn’t a religion thing. This is about new life. It’s not about systems of reading the Bible, going to church, tithing, attending cell groups and praying regularly. Man, it’s about being reborn!

If you’re sick of this life, then chew on this: Maybe you’re not yet living the one you were made for.

This year, when you’re bombarded by all the usual questions – be the answer.

Be a light which reflects Jesus. Let whatever you think, say and do show God’s goodness. Pray and ask God to make it so that when your friends and relatives see you, they see Jesus.

It’s a hard prayer to make. And if you do make it, don’t be surprised at the challenges that soon come your way. They are the opportunities you were waiting for.

It doesn’t matter what others say about you. Tongues may wag … But well, tongues will always wag no matter what you do. Be the change you want to see in your family. Dare to be different from the expectations that society places on you. 

You’re probably sick of questions but I’ll leave you with a final one: How are you going to be different this year?

/ roytay@thir.st

Roy has a peculiar appreciation for subtle wordplay, an inexplorable passion for competitive sports, and an insatiable hunger for delicious food.

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What if my family makes for an unhappy CNY?

by | 9 February 2018, 6:05 PM

Happy Chinese New Year! … Or is it?

Speaking to a number of people recently, I’ve realised that the festivities can be a difficult time for some. Not all’s well at family reunions, it increasingly appears to be.

Are you one of them? Are the relationships in your family breaking down faster than traditions can keep them together?

Maybe you once held out hope as a child, that things would get better in the family. Maybe you’ve tried, over the years, to get everyone together – but you no longer see a point to it when you’re the only one trying.

Maybe the relationships in your family are breaking down. Maybe you’re not even sure if there’s going to be a reunion dinner this year.

But what I do know is that it’s easy to feel like everyone else is having an amazing time when you’re scrolling through Instagram. It’s important to have perspective: We’re looking at the highlight reel of other people’s lives on social media.

Think about the things not present on Instagram: Strained relationships, family deaths, generational tensions, divorces, bitterness … The list goes on.

But I’m not interested in staying stuck in self-pity – we don’t have time for that. I want to think about how we can respond, if in reality, our family isn’t that perfect, shiny and colour-coordinated dream we see on-screen.

Love gets harder as we grow up – which only means our love needs growing up too.

British-Ethiopian poet, Lemn Sissay, was fostered from birth and abandoned at the age of 12. By 18, he had lived in four children’s homes. He illustrates the importance of family using the game of squash:

“Family are like the walls in a game of squash. You hit the ball and it comes back at strange angles and you try to get it again … It develops your muscles in strange places, because you have to stretch sometimes to get the ball back in to continue the game.”

You have to stretch sometimes. The stretch is the place where love is learnt. We begin young with the easier stuff: We shared our favourite biscuit with dad, or gave our favourite toy to our sister.

But love gets harder as we grow up – which only means our love needs growing up too!

It’s harder when love requires more from us, like when we’re faced with an aunt whom we just don’t want to tahan any longer. It’s hard when family culture seems impossible to change. It’s hard when money gets involved or when “face” gets in the way.

But when it’s hard that’s precisely when we need to persevere.

It’s not easy to be the first one in the family to say a loving word in response to toxicity or sarcasm. Unity is not easy. It’s not easy to put aside our pride and ask for forgiveness. And it’s not easy to choose to love when others don’t care.

If we give up on family, we never develop the “muscles” that we need. Sissay also says this:

“And that all that would happen throughout my life is that my muscles would waste away beneath me because I’m not using the muscles that develop in the game of family … Family is defined by how it deals with difficult issues. It is strengthened by how it resolves them and weakened when it tries to ignore them.”

So don’t be discouraged if your family is facing difficult issues. Consider what real love is to your family members. Be the one who would love them.

Why should you do it? 1 John 4:19. “We love because he first loved us.” Jesus Christ loved us to the point that He would die for us – all while we were still sinners. God’s love takes the initiative. Jesus did – so we must do the same.

If we give up on family, we never develop the “muscles” that we need.

We may not have gotten the love we needed from our family. We may even have even been disappointed by the very people who were supposed to be our best bets – but we always have a Father in Heaven who loves us perfectly.

“And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:18)

Being filled with our Father’s perfect love for us enables us to love those around us. If your family is challenging, then let it challenge you. That’s where the growth is at.

I pray you’ll have faith to see that your best days are ahead of you. I pray you’ll have hope in God to do what you cannot on your own, and I pray that you will love someone enough to step out of your comfort zone.


Screenshots were taken from our Chinese New Year initiative, “One More Rice Bowl“.

/ fiona@thir.st

Fiona is secretly hilarious and one of her dogs thinks so too. She loves a good chat with strangers, store assistants, and fluffy dogs.

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Article list

Why I left Instagram

Don’t follow your heart

Belinda Lee: My mother’s unwavering faith

Porn and the things I’d rather love

Tired of facing the usual questions at CNY?

What if my family makes for an unhappy CNY?