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When-2017-Starts-Off-on-the-Wrong-Foot

When 2017 Starts Off on the Wrong Foot

I blame it on the two cups of tea and one cup of coffee I had earlier that day. Though it was almost 2am, my mind was still active and raring to go.

I tossed and turned, growing increasingly frustrated. I just couldn’t seem to fall asleep. My mind replayed the same prayer I had been reciting since 1am. “God, please help me sleep. Tomorrow is the first work day of 2017. Let it be a good start.” Finally, after an hour or so, I drifted off to sleep.

The next time my eyes opened, an unfamiliar clock face configuration was staring back at me.
Confusion quickly gave way to panic: It was one hour past the usual time I woke up. On the very first workday of 2017, I was going to be late.

I jumped out of bed and quickly texted my boss to apologize and let him know that I had woken up late. To save some time, I took a cab. But the cab driver somehow ended up taking the wrong route—which prolonged my travel time and put both the driver and me in a foul mood for most of the journey.

By the time I reached office, I was a good 40 minutes late. Though my boss was completely understanding about what had happened, I was disappointed with myself. Getting to work on time had been one of my resolutions for 2017 and I had broken it on the very first workday in a spectacular way.

It sure wasn’t how I wanted to start 2017.

I wasn’t the only one to suffer a bumpy start to the year—some of my friends had even more dramatic stories than mine. One friend spent her New Year’s Eve at work fighting fire—literally; a fire had broken out in one of her company’s movie theaters due to an electrical fault. So while the rest of the world was counting down to the New Year, she was busy quelling angry members of the public. She only got home at 3am on New Year’s Day.

Another friend suffered a severe asthma attack and had to be rushed to the hospital on New Year’s Day. Thankfully, his condition is now under control and he’s back to normal.

Two other friends told me how they had welcomed 2017 in tears—one because of the lack of a relationship, the other because of her relationship. For the former, the arrival of the New Year had reminded her of the reality that she might never get married, something which she had found overwhelming. The latter had gotten into a huge fight with her husband over a decision she had made without consulting him. Her eyes were still swollen when I saw her the next day.

Like me, none of them had expected their new year to start off on the wrong foot. Everyone wants a good start. Everyone wants his or her life to improve in the new year. And this usually translates into making resolutions or actively seeking ways to help us start the year well—whether it’s physically, mentally, psychologically, emotionally and even spiritually.

But as my friends’ and my experience showed, life doesn’t always turn out the way we want. Things still break down and problems still plague us from all sides—even on New Year’s Day. And even if we start the year well, there’s no guarantee that resolutions won’t be broken or we would end the year well.

In case it sounds like I’m making light of New Year resolutions and encouraging a defeatist outlook to life, I’m not. By all means, let’s continue making resolutions with hope and optimism.

But my point is this: It doesn’t matter how we start. We could start the year feeling completely jaded and ashamed because we failed to meet any of our resolutions last year, or we could be all fired up to make 2017 the most fruitful year of our lives.

As clichéd as this sounds, it’s not the start but the end that matters (and I’m not referring to the end of 2017). As long as we have breath, let’s not let disruptions, disappointments or even dates determine our outlook to life. So what if life doesn’t deal us the cards we want? So what if our year started off poorly? So what if we have broken our New Year resolutions by the second week of the new year?

In the face of my repeated failures, I’m reminded that every day is a brand new day and God’s compassions never fail—they are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). Even if we’ve made terrible mistakes in the past, like the Apostle Paul, there’s still time for us to turn from our ways and start afresh.

It could be as simple as setting the exact same New Year resolution as the year before. Or it could be seeking a community to help us get back on track after a particularly difficult period of our lives. Even if we have failed repeatedly before, it’s okay. Even if our start didn’t work out the way we wanted, it’s fine. Let’s not give in to despair. Get up and try again.

May we, like Paul, be able to say confidently by the end of our lives, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7)

2016-When-Death-Is-On-A-Roll

2016: When Death Is On A Roll

As if the sudden deaths of British pop singer George Michael, 53, and American actress Carrie Fisher, 60—just four days apart—weren’t shocking enough, Fisher’s mother, renowned US actress Debbie Reynolds, also passed away yesterday, just one day after her daughter’s death. It was reported that she had suffered a stroke while planning for her beloved daughter’s funeral arrangements and never regained consciousness. She was 84.

The untimely deaths of these three entertainers, all within the span of a week, wrap up a year that has seen the demise of many beloved celebrities. They include rock legends David Bowie and Prince, as well as British actor Alan Rickman of Harry Potter fame. For me, it was the death of American YouTuber Christina Grimmie that affected me the most as I had been following her journey as a singer since she first started.

But while there is nothing surprising about death (after all, people die every day), there’s no way of getting used to it—especially if it involves our loved ones or someone we know.

Perhaps it was the fact that I had just watched Rogue One: A Star Wars Story a day before Fisher’s passing, and Princess Leia (acted by Fisher) was the last person that appeared before the credits rolled. Or maybe it was because Fisher had been in the headlines lately after her latest memoir, The Princess Diarist, revealed that she had had an affair with fellow actor Harrison Ford while filming the original Star Wars trilogy. For some reason, I felt like I had lost a friend when I heard the news of her death.

And then to hear that her mother passed away merely one day later—I can’t even imagine what the family must be going through. I wonder what they had talked about the week before as they gathered around the family table. Did they discuss plans for the future? Their dreams for 2017? Did anyone have any premonition that a double tragedy would happen just a week later?

As I try to wrap my head around this spate of deaths, I reach the same conclusion I had three years ago when my own father passed away after a massive stroke: Death is no respecter of persons. It can strike anyone anytime, anywhere.

Even as I write this, I’m fully cognizant of the fact that my turn on earth could be up anytime. I may not make it into 2017. I may not be able to achieve or complete what I plan to. Life is fleeting. Tomorrow is never a certainty. Whatever I have now is temporary.

What’s with all this doomsday talk? you must be thinking. We’re on the cusp of the new year, you’re probably saying, let’s look forward to 2017 with anticipation and positivity.

I cannot agree more. But if it’s the “new year” we’re waiting for in order to make new resolutions, to set our priorities right, and to devote time to what really matters, I’d say we might be missing an important lesson.

If not for anything, this year’s spate of deaths should sound the alarm that life is fleeting. We simply cannot afford to put off what’s important. Let’s not busy ourselves with urgent but unimportant stuff. Let’s find time for the important (but not necessarily urgent) matters.

The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) highlights the temporal nature of our earthly lives and what our preoccupations should be—certainly not our earthly possessions. Have we been spending our time, effort, and resources on storing treasures in heaven? Do we pursue God’s kingdom and live for others?

In Mitch Albom’s memoir of his sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, Tuesdays with Morrie, he quotes something his late professor said which has stuck with me all this while: “When you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

I wonder how differently Michael, Fisher, and Reynolds would have chosen to spend their last days had they known those were their last. How would we spend our days differently if we knew they were our last?

When a Friend is Suspected of Rape and Murder

When A Friend is Suspected of Rape and Murder

6 Mar 2016

I was about to turn in for the night; it was almost 11pm. As usual, I gave my phone a final check. My good friend, Linda, had just sent me a flurry of messages.

What I was about to read was horrific and heart-breaking.

The message read: “Jo . . . something big has happened in Siem Reap and the man’s photo looks like Kosal . . . Kosal is involved in a rape case . . .”

Kosal. Rape. Both words made no sense together. My head was spinning as I re-read Linda’s messages on how she had stumbled on a Facebook post shared by a few Cambodian youth we got to know during past mission trips to the country. It was accompanied by a photograph of a 25-year-old man whom we had known for six years.

When Linda plonked the Khmer text into Google Translate, amid the jumble of English words that came up, the words “rape”, “murder”, “11-year-old girl” and “Kosal” stood out distinctly. She confirmed her suspicions with one of the local church leaders: Kosal was accused of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl.

It was as though I had received news that my friend had died. Actually, this was worse. I felt sick to the stomach and my heart started to race as I processed what I had just read. Kosal? No way. Flashes of our friend’s smiling face crossed my mind.

We had just met Kosal on our most recent mission trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia. That was my fifth trip and Linda’s seventh. Everything was fine then. What could have gone so wrong in a matter of four months? What could have driven him to commit such a horrific act? How was his family dealing with this news? A deluge of questions filled my mind, but there were no answers. I wanted to reach out to my friends in Cambodia but it was too late at night. I felt utterly helpless and useless.

Sleep eluded me that night as I tossed and turned in bed. I just couldn’t believe how someone as mild and gentle as Kosal could be involved in such a heinous crime.

I had met Kosal six years ago—on my very first time to Cambodia—at a Bible study session that our mission team from Singapore was conducting for Christian youth in Pouk village in Siem Reap. Shy, polite, and unassuming, Kosal was introduced to us as the relative of one of the local leaders in the community.

The then-18-year-old was one of the few non-Christians at the session that night. He listened with rapt attention as one of my teammates shared the gospel with him through a translator. That night, he asked many questions which my friend patiently addressed. Months later, we heard that he had received the Lord and had been attending English classes regularly.

Subsequently, we saw Kosal every time we went back to visit and conduct programmes for the youth and children. He had assumed the role of English teacher in the village school and was serving actively and regularly in church. Thanks to his increasing proficiency in the English language, we were able to communicate with him more. He was still shy, but had learned to crack a joke or two and poke fun at our attempts to speak in Khmer.

Meeting him again on our most recent trip was like seeing an old friend. It warmed our hearts to see how much he had progressed. He had become one of the key youth leaders in Pouk village and was popular and well-regarded in the community. During class, his students would actively participate and after class, they would gather around him to play. It was evident how much he cared about them and how much they enjoyed his presence.

That’s what made the news so shocking. Why would Kosal commit rape and murder—much less of his own student, as we later found out? Kosal had repeatedly insisted he was innocent, but the local leaders, who had been updating us regularly, told us that the police apparently had sufficient evidence to prove that he was the perpetrator.

In the days to come, we would learn that Kosal, who was also the girl’s neighbor, was a suspect because he was at the scene of the crime. That day, the girl’s aunt had just come back from the market to find her hanging from a window by a television cable in what appeared to be a suicide. Kosal, who heard the aunt’s cries for help, had run over to help cut the cord. The police arrived at the scene shortly after. After examining her body, they concluded that the victim was raped and subsequently murdered. No details were shared at that point as to how the police had then determined that Kosal was the perpetrator.

All we knew was that he had been arrested on the spot and that a DNA test was to be conducted to determine whether or not he was guilty. The results would be ready only in 10 days, we were told. If he was to be found guilty, he would most likely face life imprisonment.

So we waited. But it wasn’t 10 days. It would be some 10 weeks later before we finally knew the truth of the matter.

Throughout that time, Kosal was kept in prison and we could do nothing but pray and ask the leaders for updates. They had been visiting him in prison regularly and Kosal had maintained his innocence. I thought about how lonely and scared Kosal must have felt, and how distraught the leaders too must have been, having to grapple with the fact that one of their own was suspected of rape and murder. It pained us knowing we could offer no practical help except mere words to comfort and assure them that we were praying for Kosal.

 

21 Apr 2016

Just when everything looked bleak, a glimmer of hope appeared. The DNA results were out and the result was negative! Kosal was innocent. He had been implicated in the case simply because he had been at the wrong place at the wrong time.

A surge of joy and relief filled my heart when one of the local leaders told us about the results. At the same time, I felt anger—over how Kosal had been treated—and deep sympathy towards him as I thought about all the emotional and psychological suffering he had gone through in the past few months. Still, I was thrilled that Kosal’s ordeal would be over.

Sadly, our joy was short-lived.

It wasn’t so straightforward, we were told. Kosal would not be released from prison as the judge had rejected the request to drop his case. Unless the local leaders were willing to pay a bribe, Kosal could spend at least another year in jail for a crime he did not commit.

It was a crushing blow to the local leaders, who had labored tirelessly to prove Kosal’s innocence. They were livid and disgusted. In one of the leader’s words, it was equivalent to “a legal kidnapping and ransom”. Despite the seemingly impossible situation, however, they refused to give in to pressure or to resort to unscrupulous means. They were determined to fight for Kosal’s release in the right way.

Over the next couple of months, the leaders spared no efforts to appeal the case to higher authorities, despite being warned that it would be a futile endeavor. The local church also came together in solidarity to pray for Kosal and his family. And God answered their prayers in the most incredible way: In the midst of this senseless tragedy, Kosal’s parents, as well as his two younger sisters, started going to church.

God had clearly not forgotten Kosal and his family. And that was just the beginning.

                            

2 Sep 2016

Four months later, we heard the news we had long been hoping for. On 2 September, Kosal was finally released from prison. After a six-month ordeal in prison for a crime he did not commit, he was finally free.

That very evening Kosal was released, I saw a photograph on Facebook of Kosal having dinner with some of the key local leaders. He was smiling and looked well. It was a beautiful picture of God’s faithfulness, restoration, and love.

 

It has been two months since Kosal’s release from prison. He has yet to recover fully from his ordeal: he still has nightmares, and frequently suffers from sleepless nights. But there is a silver lining. Kosal’s whole family has since come to accept Jesus into their lives. A few weeks ago, the whole family testified of God’s grace and goodness in church.

As I think back on this entire episode, my heart is filled with joy and gratitude as I see how God had answered the cries of His children. He not only preserved Kosal, his family, and the community through this dark time, but also did a beautiful work in bringing his whole family to Christ. Kosal’s story is truly a testament of God’s faithfulness to His children (Romans 8:28), and is one I will hold on to when I face challenges in my own life.

I pray that Kosal will continue to testify of God’s goodness. To God be all glory!

bragelina-split-the-end-of-love

Brangelina split: The end of Love?

Or so that is what some news reports have been saying, after news emerged yesterday that Hollywood’s golden couple, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, are ending a two-year marriage—after 12 years and six children together.

According to documents obtained by various news agencies, A-lister actress and director Jolie is pulling the plug on her marriage to actor Brad Pitt because of “irreconcilable differences”. Other news media suggest that Jolie’s decision—which her attorney described vaguely as being made “for the health of the family”—could have been triggered by differences in parenting style or Pitt’s anger problems and substance abuse issues.

Jolie has reportedly asked for custody of their six children and visitation rights to be granted to Pitt; she did not ask for spousal support. What about Pitt? Well, reports have noted that he is “very saddened” by the divorce and is most concerned about the “well-being of kids”.

News of their split has sent shockwaves all over the world, with many expressing sadness over the end of Brangelina, as they have been dubbed by the media. But why should they? After all, if we’re being honest, Hollywood marriages and divorces are, well, a dime a dozen.

Perhaps it’s because for once, we believed that Brangelina would be different. Throughout their 12-year relationship, we’ve seen the couple’s commitment to their professional work, humanitarian work, each other, and their children. As one Independent article put it, “Despite being astronomically wealthy and living thousands of miles away from the average Brit, Brangelina’s relationship was perhaps the most aspirational of all – no tantrums, no screaming matches, no huge betrayals, just getting on with life, even with the stresses and strains of illness, operations and six children to boot.” In short, they appeared to be the exemplary Hollywood couple.

That’s probably why many millennials have been reacting to the news of Brangelina’s divorce with the idea that “If they can’t do it, no one can”. And that’s perhaps why many news outlets have chosen to accompany their headlines on the split with lines like “Love is officially dead” and “Love ends today”.

But not everyone agrees. As Mashable’s writer Martha Tesema writes, “Love is far from dead. It’s very much alive, blossoming within the thousands of other high-profile power couples in the world we can look up to in awe.”

Tesema is right on one thing—love is far from dead. The end of Brangelina does not mean that love has ceased to exist. As much as we are in awe of everything they’ve achieved, they’re mere mortals—just like every one of us. They make mistakes. They fight. They break up.

But to take comfort in the fact that love continues to be “alive” because the marriages of other high-profile power couples are still thriving is downright naïve—and, may I add, foolish. If not for anything else, Brangelina’s split should sound the alarm bells in our minds that nobody is immune to broken relationships. Regardless of whether we’re the President of America or Britain’s most well-known footballer, we’re all fallible. By our own strength, we can never guarantee the constancy of our love for our partners—and vice versa.

Who then should we look to? It’s obvious enough, isn’t it?

Christ.

Love is far from dead—because of Christ. It’s very much alive, blossoming within those who have received Christ’s love.

So let’s take heart, not in ourselves, but in the One whose love will never fail. Because He first loved us, we can keep on loving (1 John 4:19).

Photo credit: Filmstiftung via Foter.com / CC BY