An Ode To Mom On Her Birthday

Mom you’re 55 now

You’re not getting younger

I will list your accomplishments

Without sounding like a funeral parlor

First you bore me for under a year

And I popped out with a pow

I had a big furry head

But no monkey’s tail in my stead

If that wasn’t exciting enough

You had me for another 28

And Debbie for 26

Without her being second rate

You’ve had Dad even longer

33 years! Who can fathom

Living with such Chinese boredom

Mom could you have hoped

That at 22 you’d live with such dopes?

The years have flown by

And still you stood nigh

A tower of refuge

A stronghold of safety

Even for friends

And not just family

Still Mom I thank God

For each of those years and naught

All of them well spent

And all of them planned

By the one who holds you in his hand

I thank you mom for holding me to sleep

Your own tears drowning my stomach’s cries

I thank you mom for a shirt that’s dry

The brain that’s big and the heart that’s deep

I thank you mom for words and stories

Even Goosebumps and Blyton’s lorries

I stayed up each night to read your books

And didn’t even give the darkness second looks

I thank you mom for the library excursions

And a schooling that went beyond convention

But most of all I thank you mom

For pointing me back when my way was lost

Not to a warm house safe from frost

Nor to your warm arms

Though warm they were

But to my creator

The God who stirs

And brings home even sons of curs

This prodigal son found his home

In the arms of the shepherd his own

You’re the Monica to my Augustine

The Eunice to my Timothy

Like many godly men I know

You’re the mom that’s made me so

There Is No Magic Pill: On Waiting For Grace

Some people are drawn to despair and destruction. Solitude and loneliness beckon to you like the abyss under a skyscraper on a windy night when the moon shines but nothing is illuminated. And as you stand on the precipice of the roof you feel yourself pulled to stand on the edge…and maybe even jump? The prospect is exhilarating yet nauseating, knowing that you are one-second away from oblivion.

Is this me? Will I have to tread the road not taken? I was reminded of this in a film called Lucky Per about a Danish prodigy who leaves his clerical family to become an engineer only to throw it all away. Not even a woman’s love could save him from his destiny. He ends his life poor, in a wilderness of his own, working the land from his cabin, slowly dying from disease.

I’m reminded when I read the biblical story of Cain, who was condemned for a sacrifice that wasn’t good enough for his Father. The unbearable pain of rejection became resentment for his brother Abel because he was loved. Then resentment became bloodshed. And Cain became doomed to wander the earth forever because he added guilt on top of guilt. With every step his brother Abel’s blood cried out for justice. Could he have helped it?

There’s something about nothingness that is alluring. It’s not so much that you want to die, you just don’t want to live. Life is so painful let alone when you’re haunted by guilt! Why bother? How do you find rest? Emptiness haunts you left and right. Dread and alienation dog every step. It reminds you that you’re different from everyone else and everything else. So being nothing can seem more attractive than being itself.

It’s almost like a primeval call harkening you to return to where you came from. “Naked you were born into the world and naked you shall return.” Is it a curse from God? A pig farmer who once cursed God upon a hill and became the richest man in Copenhagen. Yet his son Kierkegaard became the most anxious man of Europe. His father forever believed that his family was cursed by God. Perhaps like Kafka, it’s the disappointment of my father that always follows me. And my sensitive childhood only serves to remind me that someone is coming for me. I don’t know who. But one day they will find me out.

These questions run through my head at night. Where have I gone wrong? And what can be done? What can possibly wash my hands of the unknown crimes I’ve committed blindfolded? Is God dead? Have I killed him? It certainly appears that way. Out damned spot! Out. But no amount of washing is sufficient. I think that Lady’s Macbeth cries would be more heard than mine.

These days I find the solace of friends the most soothing to this emptiness. Yet as I fill it up with friends, it drains just as quickly away. It leaves me even more exhausted. It’s a hell of a drug. I can’t exactly define what this emptiness is. Maybe it’s a haunting of death in a broken world exiled from Eden. And sometimes I think I love it too much because it’s all I have. Still… what am I meant to do with it?

Maybe, just maybe, there’s nothing I can do. Maybe I don’t need to do anything. Maybe what is required is an act of faith — to seek and humble myself under God, to recognize that only God can provide joy and fulfillment in his own time and in his own way. Maybe faith is the true defense against anxious and weary living, a pursuit of life that only takes from you until you have nothing left to give. But how can I rest in something that doesn’t even seem real in this moment? That’s the real leap of faith — to rest and wait.

Sometimes we think there’s a magic pill. We’re so results oriented. We want a solution to our life’s problems and a fix to it. But maybe there is no fix. All other fixes are only means of escaping and running away and hoping the problem doesn’t resurface whether its Netflix or alcohol or shopping and even Christian ministry.

Maybe God means for us to face this head on. After all, the story of the Exodus reminds us that there’s a rock in the wilderness where springs of life flow from. Maybe in the midst of darkness is light. Only in confronting this nothingness will we become ourselves. We will overcome as a light in the darkness for others. And the darkness will not overcome it. We will truly be.

I have read in Lewis, in Kafka, in Steinbeck and in Dostoevsky sayings that are wise and beautiful. But never have I read in any of them, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The grace that God gives and the rest he lays you down to is a life and a joy that never stops giving. It gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. It raises you up on eagle’s wings. Though even youths grow weary, you will run and not be tired, you will soar even amidst a fragmented and forsaken world. You will know who you are and who God is in the midst of it all. You can wail and pour out your soul because weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes in the morning. We just need to wait.

The Australian Sun

In many cultures

In many times and places

The sun is an object of worship

To many peoples and many races

The emperor is the descendant

His father the sun

But here in Australia

There is only one

The individual I

And the son of no sun

A morning stroll

Under Sydney’s sunny skies

Along Burwood’s shopping atoll

I saw just an example of this

Red ran around my eyes

Brown sizzling skin

A man had gone for a run

Banana boat clearly in the bin

This jiggling sunburnt ham

Was naked and exposed

To the sun and to the sons

Who could not find their eyes’ repose

But where was he running to?

He glided along

His jiggle strong

As his skin shook its fist

Against wrinkles

Against time

Against death

Against the sun

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.

I Didn’t Choose The Block Life, The Block Life Chose Me

Bang. Bang. Bang! The clock strikes six and three pairs of hands hit three hammers as the day begins. In reply the crows scatter cawing like dying children. The musty air is caked with dust and cement. I roll onto my side. And then the other. I would have rolled out of my bed if it wasn’t on the floor. Rolling on the cat is the next best thing. I breathe and snort and the air is rented from my inflamed nostrils.

Bang. Bang. Bang! The air is rent with cars and construction. Helmets bearing down hammers hoping to sell the next block to as many Chinese moms as they can get. As I step out onto the pavement the magpies follow my wife as she runs. They are attracted to the smell of sweat and fear. To ward them off I toss a crumb of bread onto the path which is trampled on by a couple drinking milk tea, disregarding the use other footpath sign.

Fortunately for me, class is next door. But good luck to my wife. Her feet patter and the drills clatter. She takes off with her entourage of magpies. And I turn to head into Christ College. Bang. Bang. Bang!

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.