To My Readers: Med students, Doctors, Theology Students, Teachers, Arts Students, Eccentric Pastors And Those Forced To Read Nonsense. Why I Write: Because Saying Beautifully Is Seeing beautifully

A few people have asked me lately why it is I write the way I do. A friend of Captivate and infrequent peruser of my blog called Tim Cheung me a really good question yesterday. In fact I’m not sure if I’ve ever been asked it before: where do you find beauty? For him lately it was in urban solitude. As a worker in the city he would try to capture in his moments of stillness amidst its hustle and bustle. Moments like the morning fog, the gentle rush of workers to work, the stops by coffee shops and silent commuters on their phones. Before I really had any time to think about it, my intuition responded with, “Words.”

Yet as I reflected on this I realized that it was inevocably me. Somehow, somewhere, as a boy and now as a man, words have come to define my life. When you think about it, it makes sense. In the beginning God said, “let there be light and there was light”. He spoke and it came to be. In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God. And in Jesus, the Word became flesh and dwelt with men. In him was the life and the light and there was no darkness at all. God’s Word, the order and reason and understanding beyond all creation and reality, his perfect revelation of himself, actually became a human being so we could know him. And God continues to speak through his words.

Last year, I often woke up to blurry numbers on an alarm clock. I brushed my teeth in the orange glow of dawn. I showed up to work and didn’t stop till I finished. There was a bite to eat and some time to check my phone. But otherwise it was one patient after another. One person who had taken 2 and a half years to recover from a nerve root compression and could barely balance on her feet or get out of bed. Another person had lost a family friend in a freak truck accident on Sydney’s freeways and her body wasn’t holding up. There were so many demands and so little time.

My body felt spent. My mind was foggy. I didn’t know what I was seeing or where I was going. On the rides home I would just stare ahead on the freeway, a straight gray road and drive in silence. My mind refused to think coherently. There was no way I would’ve thought of putting pen to paper or even writing a decent half sentence. Yet there I was. Sitting on my desk in the darkness completing another paragraph. Why did I keep writing day after day like that?

I’m sure there are more words in the world than there are stars in the sky. Mine are not terribly important nor powerful. I won’t be starting any reformations or overthrowing any governments or inventing any new theories. My voice is simply a drop into the vast ocean of words, soon to be drowned in its watery depths. There must’ve been a reason why I continued to write on those days. It had to go beyond simply the influence or effect it had on others.

I think it’s because of what words are and what they mean to me. Language, writing, ideas; these are all reflections of God’s living Word. These words are tools which create a picture, a way of seeing behind appearances to what’s really there, into Being itself and the God who is there and not silent. Create enough pictures and you have a whole world. Though it’s imperfect, God and Being communicates itself to us through these imperfect words, shaping our hearts and minds. God reveals himself in his Word and we see him clearer through ours, a two way traffic lane.

Being aware of my experience and articulating it makes me more aware of the one behind it, who is with me and in me. During seasons of existential alienation and loneliness, it helps me when I cry to know what I’m crying about and what I’m experiencing and the thoughts and fears that come during this way of living. But then I remember the memories of God’s presence and his comfort mysteriously there. I recall other moments of comfort from others. I discover in my grief, that I am not quite alone. And the pain now becomes an ache rather than unbearable and unending pain. Misery loves company? Yes, because there is a deepening sustenance in the company of those from and with whom we can receive love and care. Through my own words, God’s Word comes to me and agony is transformed. It is redeemed.

When I write I remember reading the words of Pastor John Piper years ago, that “saying beautifully is seeing beautifully”. I think I continue to write not only for the pleasure it gives to others (although that would be nice) but because there exists a depth of my soul that hasn’t fully been explored without expressing itself. That is to say, that only when I can speak of who I am and what I know that I know myself better. And in knowing myself better I also know the One I was made for better. I write because saying clearly is seeing clearly. And I long to see God and myself as he sees me and to know him as I’m fully known. Writing in a way is meditation. Sitting and reflecting on my own words and giving a voice to my thoughts helps me to understand what I think and feel and what I should do. And I think I should write. So I write because saying beautifully is seeing beautifully.

Confronting my weirdness… Again

Worthy thoughts from a friend.

The View from the Stars

I had an epiphany the other day. It was triggered by inexplicable feelings of melancholy and loneliness, made worse when I realised that no one reads these articles. Ok, that’s an exaggeration. I think perhaps two people read each article, on average. But why is it that I’ll get so much more engagement if I post a photo of my children, compared with a carefully thought-out philosophical musing or poem? Why would I have more attention from an image, not even of myself, than from an exposition of my deepest self and thoughts?

Maybe I just have no friends.

But that’s a bit harsh. As my husband pointed out, most people go onto social media to be distracted, not to think; to be entertained, not to engage. It’s much easier to like an image than to wrestle with ideas, especially when the image is of cute kids doing cute things…

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Growing Up With A Difficult Sister: Reflections of a Brother

There is a price to be paid for every increase in consciousness. We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain — Alan Watts.

I titled this piece, Growing Up With A Difficult Sister but I wonder if it should be the other way around. “You’re too sensitive!” “Stop being sensitive!” “Why can’t you take a joke…?” I remember those cries like it was yesterday. Whenever my sister got upset at me, whether it was for stealing her snacks or making fun of her, I would always deflect her issue by pointing out how sensitive she was. It was her issue. It wasn’t my fault she couldn’t take a joke. I would follow that up, pretending to comfort her, by patting her head several times and hoping such patronizing would defuse the situation. It did not. I remember once that the girl I crowned “the queen of sore losers” upended a whole monopoly board and stole all my cash because she lost the game. She really was the queen.

A sensitive sister is not a big problem — if you have friends and other relationships and space to grow apart and protect yourself from one another’s furies. After all, there is a reason why the proverb, “Familiarity breeds contempt” exists. But between the moving spaces of four countries, ironically our family spaces became narrowed. The four walls of mom, dad, my sister and I became a garden of joy and a suffocating prison of despair. Our fragmented childhood meant our relationship as siblings became the key to our survival. So there was no escape. In this room of one’s own, one could either dig at the walls, hoping for jailbreak or annihilate your cell mate.

I think I understand now her sensitivity a little better. The sensitive person is a paradox. Sensitivity is the level of your consciousness, both of pleasure and pain, of evil and good, of beauty and ugliness, of truth and of lies. The more conscious you are, the more sensitive you become. But its cost is immense — a traffic jam can ruin your day; a break up, your life. But we need sensitive people because without them we are blind to different layers of reality.

My sister was sensitive because she cared. She cared about her relationships, especially ours. Her emotions reflected the intensity both of her inner self and how she understood herself in her relationships. Her responses raised a good question — in the cruelty of relationships, we aren’t we more depressed? When betrayal and tragedy all occur within families and friends why aren’t children more anxious? I still vividly remember nights of shouting and broken glass. That’s probably why we fought so much. She always opened herself up to me but I was a walking jack hammer.

Of course, being sensitive doesn’t excuse you from personal agency or responsibility. Nor does it mean you always understand why you’re so sensitive. What exactly is it that you’re feeling? You still have to choose what you do with your life and how you respond to these emotions. My sister was no exception. But the temptations are harder and the possibilities of evil greater. We can do more damage with our pain. It is crimes committed out of hatred and passion that devastate the most. Even the most apathetic criminal has inwardly become one who hates life itself. Why did Cain kill Abel? Isn’t it because his deeds were evil and Abel’s were good? Isn’t it because Abel was loved by his Father and he wasn’t? It’s easy to think that being sensitive makes us better humans. But it doesn’t always. It’s about what we choose to do with what we become conscious of.

So in saying that, I think my sister really was growing up with a difficult brother. My solution to everything was to suppress emotions — both mine and hers. All I had to do was highlight her wrong emotions, her overreactions and her sensitivity, as though it was a problem in itself. It’s no wonder my sister would say I had the emotional maturity of a ten year old. As Hermione Granger used to say to Ron Weasley, “Just because you have the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have.” It’s ironic that one of my nicknames in elementary school was Ron Weasley. Looking back now, I think what I wish was that I had listened to my sister better. As the more “resilient” one I wish that I had strengthened her. And I wish I had come to know the greater joy of understanding her. Because in knowing her, I also came to know myself.

Theology or Therapy? Does Depression Even Exist? A Fresh Perspective

Whose reality counts?

Last week I was finishing a pastoral care plan for Captivate Presbyterian, the church I’m currently interning at. The pastoral care plan was aimed at addressing the holistic needs of those suffering from depression in the congregation. What I repeatedly encountered during my research was a tension between the natural and the supernatural that approached the level of paradox (just like most of reality). Modern society sees depression as a distinct clinical entity like having the flu (although I’d much rather have the flu) without any spiritual element to it. But Christians recognize that every person is an embodied spirit and that the Christian Scriptures cover every aspect of human experience. All personal experience is therefore a spiritual one too and depression likewise. But people struggle to balance different perspectives. Christians tend to either treat depression as any other physical illness or to blame it on some spiritual cause. My friend shared this paper with me that gave us a fresh perspective on theology, philosophy and psychiatry through its examination of depression and I want to explore this a bit further.

Does depression even exist?

Natural brokenness

There’s no denying that depression exists. But no one can seem to agree on what it is or who has it across any culture. These days in the West, it can be a matter of ticking a few boxes on a DASH questionnaire. Which raises the question — in what sense does depression actually exist? This is the issue that Swinton’s paper recognizes.

Worse, there isn’t a consistent understanding of depression across time or cultures. We’ve struggled to determine whether one even has it. This is tied to the problem of whether depression actually exists as a disease in itself. Even the symptoms and the way people with deep sadness or apathy describe depression differ from what mental health ‘experts’ offer. So am I depressed because I say I am? Whose reality ultimately counts?

When a diagnosis is reified (that is the idea that the person has depression is made real), the psychiatrist pronounces that the patient has a certain disease. But when we understand it in this way, it focuses on the individual and the problem he has. It numbs us to the possibility that perhaps depression is not a disease in itself, but a signal of the emotionally toxic society we live in. Instead of better understanding our time and place, the emphasis is often on numbing and medicating and treating the ‘sick’ person.

Spiritually transformative

Swinton’s paper reviews one approach to spiritually understand depression. Rather than something innately bad, the potentially transformative model frames depression as a natural experience that can be interpreted differently and used to grow and transform the individual. The problem of modern society is that it treats health and wholeness as the absence of any disease and tries to avoid any suffering. Because it views it as the greatest evil any God and spirituality have to answer to it (this might account for the problem of theodicy). Yet even Nietzsche the true postmodern saw suffering and depression not as an evil but as a necessity for transformation and true life. Just like the movies, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Theology over self actualization

But without a transcendent dimension, the potentially transformative model only becomes a “spiritually” oriented self actualization. It’s just another tool for your psychological wellbeing. The focus is still too therapeutic. It is as spiritually bankrupt as mindfulness and meditation without any reference to anything else but yourself. Theologically, Judaism and Christianity has always viewed health not as self-actualization, or the absence of disease or sadness. Rather it’s the presence of God (the divine) in the midst of suffering (cf. The story of Job). You don’t have to be happy or guilt free or physically whole to be healthy! It’s about one’s relationship to God and their assurance of his love and presence.

If this is true, then suffering doesn’t have to be inevitably bad. Yes, it still sucks. The feeling of suffering especially depression can feel like an eternal longing that never ends. It can be paralyzing guilt over who we are. It can feel the alienation of being and the shame of being unlike others. After all, it is the regret between the ideal of what life could be and what it really is: a sad abyss, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Lemony Snickett puts it like this, “the sad truth is that the truth is sad.”

Where to go?

I’m not saying that understanding depression as a transformative opportunity denies how awful it is to experience it. I don’t think we have to mutually exclude paradoxical ideas. Instead, if we realize that there is more than one way to understand depression and suffering in general, we can understand ourselves and the world better. We can understand what depression ultimately points to. And we don’t have to simply treat a person with depression like some sick individual who just needs panadol. They have to change. But maybe we do too.

For Christians it is only the evil and suffering that separates us from God that is truly evil. Only when one recognizes that, can one transcend suffering. As Dostoevsky would say, “How can one be well when one suffers morally?” So suffering can be transformative. It can lead us to know God and through knowing him, to become better than who we are. And it highlights the need to reform society before the face of God and the need for him to manifest his transcendence in the immanent. Depression becomes not a final destination but a pothole along a journey. There is a time for weeping and lamenting and healing. But there is also a time for learning and growth and overcoming. As it is written, weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes in the morning.

An Evening Walk In Burwood Park

The storm clears

The rivers run and sigh

Flowing streams of tears

The grass shake off their manes bright and green

And the possums gather looking for bread

As the moon smiles upon the earth’s sheen

Steam rises from its manholes

Emitting the stench of its deep underbelly

I walk along Burwood park and Coles

And my bonsai breathes a sigh of relief

The rain is gone

But where is the sun?

It can scarcely wait till dawn

He Is Not Silent

He is here. He hears every word. The words poured over me as water over a rock. I was hearing but not listening. I saw but didn’t perceive. And I was reminded once again that God promises to never leave or forsake his children. They are not orphans. But he has come to them and made his home in them. Yet what do you do when he seems so far away?

Your subjective mind and your perception is all you have. And it’s all you know. Isn’t it? After all, if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a noise? And if God is there but no one is around to listen, does he really speak? I pondered these thoughts in my mind as I spoke with my teachers and afterwards as I sat eating, chewing each thought with every bite.

And then I remembered the stars. I’ve always loved stargazing. But growing up in Malaysia and China doesn’t give you much of an opportunity to see them. So when I moved to Sydney I was floored. There were stars everywhere and every night. And yet people walked about each day with their eyes on the ground. But I couldn’t stop staring at the sky. It was a battle between me, time and my spinal stability. Usually I lost.

Every time I see the stars I’m reminded of how little we know of what’s outside us. And yet it isn’t because little exists beyond us. Vast stars, constellations, planets, and galaxies are all formed beyond my knowledge and control, playing a harmony to their creator. And yet to my eyes they are but little specks of white light, light that has travelled for so long and so far that by the time they reach me their very bodies have died and exploded on the black canvas of space.

Why do the stars exist? It would be absurd to think they were for us when we can’t even see them. No, the stars exist for their creator who calls each one out by their name. Not one of them is forgotten or lost to him. Though they seem little more than white dusty specks to us. Often God seems so small and so far off he might very well cease to exist. In times like that you can believe that he doesn’t exist. But then neither do you, a random incoherent bundle of thoughts. But God is able to exist just fine without our perception. And just like the stars, he shines brightest only in the darkest night.

It is just a matter of seeing. So I’m going to keep waiting until I can say, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

Sunday Reflections: Is ministry just a pyramid scheme?

A minister is someone who serves. Service is part of who we are and not just what we do. At least that’s what I heard as I sat through our sermon at Captivate Presbyterian church this Sunday. It’s a tender topic for me because I’ve wrestled with the relationship between ministry and activity and identity for awhile now. If what we do repeatedly is who we are as Aristotle said, then isn’t one’s relationship to God simply reflected in their service, where their ethical life is? So often it seems to be a guise for all manner of people pleasing and doing what others want; meeting obligations in other words.

I don’t doubt that service is a good thing. A properly packed quarter pounder at McDonald’s can make one’s day. But its nature is elusive. What does it mean to serve out of how Christ has served us? Why did Jesus and Paul care so much about a servant life? I think it comes down to the inward nature of fear. Offering up your money or signing up your time to a ministry program out of guilt comes from an irreverent fear, the one between master and slave, that fears only punishment.

On the other hand, you want to live freely and not out of fear of others. So you don’t serve anyone. You hold yourself close. And you guard yourself. In the end you up serving yourself. And this comes out of fear of a different kind – fear of loss.

In the end I think our lives are inescapably tied to sacrifice. It is part of worship. And everyone worships something as David Foster Wallace observed. Our hearts were made to love. Service is that sacrifice of love. And we’re restless until we find rest in the proper object of our loves.

To serve well is to serve freely not out of fear of punishment or loss. It is to serve out of wholeness from a perfect love that has cast out all fear. This is a reverent fear of awe and delight. The identity of a servant as Jesus’ describes I think is not one who accomplishes or conforms to the needs of others. A servant is the one who is great because he has the least. Because he is the one who has the most. And in dying he gives life and causes another to live just as every mother experiences at a new birth. This is what Jesus offers us in his love to us – by dying to reconcile us and rising to overcome death, he invites us to participate in the same life that he lived.

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell. C.S. Lewis.

What About The Time God Gave People Hemorrhoids?

One of the subjects I’m studying at the moment has us reading through the books of 1 and 2 Samuel. The passage for class yesterday was 1 Sam. 5 which was about the capture of God’s ark by the Philistines. They had walloped Israel in battle, slaying Eli’s 2 sons, causing Samuel to break his neck and his daughter in law to die in childbirth. Israel was a glutton for punishment so the Philistines compounded their victory by seizing God’s ark from Israel and transporting it back to their territories.

Both nations expected Israel to win since they had the ark of God’s presence with them. And this guy had a reputation of smoting some nasty Egyptians with all sorts of stuff – frogs, boils, you name it. But God’s backhand to Israel meant that he allowed himself to be captured. So you’d forgive the Philistines for thinking that God was on their side. They even wanted to honor him by propping him up next to their local deity Dagon. It doesn’t quite end well for him.

Nor does it seem like God takes compliments very well. According to the Masoretic text of 1 Sam. 5 it reads, ”The hand of the Lord lay heavy upon the Ashdodites, and he wrought havoc among them: He struck Ashdod and its territory with hemorrhoids. When the men of Ashdod saw how matters stood, they said, “The Ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for his hand has dealt harshly with us and with our god Dagon.””

Their answer of course in this irony of ironies is that instead of sending the ark of the God of Israel back to Israel, they send it to other Philistine cities. Misery loves company and this only spreads the damage. The ark makes a tour until Ekron where “…the panic of death pervaded the whole city, so heavily had the hand of God fallen there; and the men who did not die were stricken with hemorrhoids. The outcry of the city went up to heaven.”

Have you ever had hemorrhoids? I have. It’s not long before your cries start reaching heaven. Why am I writing all his? I guess it’s to say that God has a sense of humor. I can’t imagine another way of wrath breaking out other than blood vessels breaking out against your bum skin. Hemorrhoids are painful. And sometimes God speaks to us in ways that only look funny backwards. It’s painful for a time but necessary. Because if you don’t laugh you’ll cry. And life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.

”Other People Have It Worse”: Modern Stoicism and Self Pity

Does knowing that someone else has it worse than you really ease your suffering? As I thought about this, I was seared with a memory from years ago. I had just broken up with my first girlfriend. “It’s okay Nathan. There’s plenty more fish in the sea.” The Confucian advice was from my well meaning dad. I just sat crying into my rice as my mom and sister exchanged glances and shook their heads. Another memory flows from its subconscious dregs into my mind — a recent friend of mine became a pastor in a rough area. Being from a more privileged background, the suffering and disorder he encountered was overwhelming. One way he continued to keep himself going was by minimizing his difficulties. After all, how can he complain when so many of his flock have it worse?

Thinking through this matters because suffering is real. In fact, it may the most real part of life. Life is suffering. Unless you close your eyes. So how do you find comfort? How do you counsel? And how do you understand what you will inevitably go through at some point in life? Without understanding suffering you may find yourself broken, shipwrecked, and damaged beyond recognition. You may become someone you never knew.

This was the case for many wives and children waiting to welcome their dads home after the Vietnam war, only to receive someone who was dad half the time and a raging alcoholic the other. This is the case for every single guy and girl after a break up or divorce. Who will they be now? The gym provides little answer.

While reminding yourself of the triviality of your suffering keeps self pity and pride in check, its objectivity doesn’t help you suffer well. It doesn’t give you the resolve to overcome it or to ease its sting. Suffering is costly. It eats you up the more you have it. Everyone has a breaking point. At its worse, such a stoic saying simply denies it and leads to the pretense that “I’m fine. And you’re fine.” And therefore nobody is.

It is written somewhere in the Psalms that those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy. As I listened to pastor Tim Keller preach from this Psalm I realized this: that what comforts and heals and changes you is not knowing that people have it worse but that no one had it worse than Jesus. This man was a man of sorrows. But his sorrows were for you. His life was one trial after another and ended in agony – forsaken by God and condemned to die nailed on a tree by men. And it was all for the joy set before him.

Just as he wept for the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept bittersweet tears on that cross for us. His pain was undiminished. But his resolve was firm. And his joy was magnified. Because he knew it would reconcile humanity to God and ultimately fix this broken world. The darkness of alienation from God and men was worth every tear if it meant we could share his joy.

So when I suffer, without denying what I experience, I can remember that Jesus had it worse. I can continue to live, sowing tears and knowing that not one will fall to the ground and be wasted. Each drop will be reaped with joy. And though we don’t quite know what suffering will do to us, we know that we will be like him and see him as he is – one who suffered and triumphed and laughed over life even in death. This is the hope of redemption and the immeasurable glory that no suffering can overcome.

The Belly Buster

Around Christmas time, I saw a man with cropped hair, olive skin and arms that tried to squeeze out of his gray tank top. As he ducked and weaved his way through the crowds at Westfield shopping center, one bright Unicef worker dared to break through the blur and stand up to the tanned hulk.

Commence the pleading! First came the convenience: “just 2 mins of your time sir.” Then as his clipboard rattled, the cause was put forward — “a cure for AIDs.” But it was too little. And too late. The tank top’s bags had too much momentum. They propelled him forward rolling past the clipboard and spectacles with the polite flash of pearly teeth. Maybe he was shopping for a girlfriend. Then there would be no stopping him.

I shook my head at the man. Now I wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t even the most generous person. But at least I wasn’t like that man. That’s what I thought. I enjoyed the amusement fo a second and then used the distraction to skip past the Unicef booth — hopefully unnoticed. The booth was an island among the 7 seas. Currents of people would ripple away from it. And there water often dried.

So I escaped. I survived not just the harassment to my schedule but the pangs of my guilty conscience. After all, who were they to ask for my money? How did one choose between all the noble causes that existed? What about the money I already gave? The entrance to Platypus shoes ended my day time reverie. I slowed my pace as I relaxed into the glassy cases of Vans and Timberlands and Converse. Not even the shop assistant’s questions fazed me. I was there to do my Christmas shopping. I was there to find the right Vans for me.

The Vans expressed how I felt about myself at the moment. Black and white. Size 10s. Lows. They are me. I am them. I would get around to other needs eventually. But 1st I needed to be me. I checked the label for its authenticity and satisfied with it, walked out with a black box. At least I’m keeping it minimal. So I thought.