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Praying--For-whose-ears

Praying: For whose ears?

Photo by Terry Bidgood

Palms sweaty, heart racing, mind on overdrive.

No, it’s not nervousness over an impending exam or presentation, but, well . . . praying with others.

Even though I grew up in a “culturally Christian” family, I had never really prayed with others before. The closest I had come to it was muttering a quick prayer before the occasional celebratory family meal to give thanks for the food.

But for the most part, I saw prayer as a one-on-one, personal conversation between me and my Father—my whispered words for His ears alone. So, after I truly accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior and joined a small family church where praying with those around us was a common practice, I was both intrigued and terrified.

I had never heard people talking to God out loud before, and doing so felt like I was spying on a secret conversation. While I was comfortable observing them, I would clam up whenever it was my turn.

I remember one occasion in particular: I was painfully stuttering through a prayer with two older people I’d just been acquainted with, my eyes scrunched up in concentration and cheeks warm. I felt stupid for not knowing how to pray, and mortified at how stilted my prayer was compared to theirs; my words sounded thick and clunky coming out of my mouth.

Over time, as I listened to the prayers of others, I couldn’t help but notice how they prayed. Some stammered, generously sprinkling filler words like “um” and “like” throughout their prayers; others were capable of reciting concise summaries of sermons we’d just heard in a perfectly packaged prayer. Some prayed like a bullet train, spurting out clipped words in a single breath, while others meandered wherever their thoughts took them. Some prayed with boredom tinging their voices, others prayed with emotion quivering at the back of their throats.

I marveled at my best friend’s eloquent prayers, richly adorned with descriptive language and generously furnished with Bible verses. I envied her easy confidence and poignant words, which felt like a much more pleasing prayer to the Lord’s ears than my own—or so I imagined.

As I listened to them, I began to pick up expressions and phrases to incorporate in my own articulated prayers, as if collecting shiny baubles to deck my petitions to God with. Without knowing it, I became overly conscious of what I sounded like in the ears of others—and even critical and condescending as I began to judge other people’s prayers against my own.

One Sunday, I had the opportunity to pray with a sister a couple of years younger than me. She was a small, unassuming, and quiet girl whom I hardly knew. Even though she came from a Mandarin-speaking background and wasn’t fluent in English, her prayer was beautiful. She prayed to the Lord earnestly and simply, with short sentences, in a tone of complete reverence and humility. And even though she spoke with few words, I could hear and feel her love for God.

Right then, I felt ashamed of my own prayer, which, though gracefully delivered, didn’t come from an intimate or authentic place. Instead, it was motivated by a subconscious desire to be found praying the “right” way, and to sound and appear holy and perfect, as I assumed Christians ought to be. As I learnt to participate in corporate prayer, I had unknowingly mistaken my primary audience to be my fellow brothers and sisters. I had forgotten that while praying with others can be one way to edify and encourage them, it shouldn’t be the main motivation behind praying with others. This sweet, young sister-in-Christ made me realize that no oratory prowess can compare to a humble prayer uttered from a genuine and contrite spirit.

Jesus made it clear that He isn’t impressed by eloquent prayers that exalt Him on the surface but indirectly exalt the person praying (Matthew 6:5-13; 23:5-12). Rather, He is pleased with and accepts the prayers of those who call upon His name in repentance (Luke 18:10-14).

Today, I have learned to pray slowly and thoughtfully, and to murmur simple, heartfelt words directed solely for the ears of my Father in Heaven while in the presence of others. After all, our prayers are ultimately for God’s ears, who alone hears and answers according to His perfect will and in His perfect time.

Why-I-Almost-Didnt-Get-Baptized

Why I Almost Didn’t Get Baptized

After five years of knowing, believing and growing in my Lord and Savior, I finally got baptized on Christmas Day last year.

It still feels somewhat surreal as I recall the day I declared my faith and was baptized at sea, with my friends and family watching on.

Yet it almost didn’t happen.

If you’d asked me a month or even two weeks prior to Christmas, I’d have shaken my head hesitantly and said, “Maybe next round . . .”

Even though I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior in early 2012, proudly called myself His follower, and prayed and read His Word daily, somehow I still didn’t feel ready to take the step into the waters.

 

Excuses, excuses

Maybe it was the fact that I was no longer riding on the spiritual high that came with first falling in love with Him.

Instead, as the daily grind of life soon took over, I ended up giving new excuses with the arrival of each Easter and Christmas: I was too stressed out by my studies and didn’t have the brain-space to join my church’s baptism class, I was bogged down by my thesis and struggling with depression . . .

Two weeks before Christmas—the last day on which we had to inform our church whether we wanted to be baptized—I bumped into an older sister-in-Christ from church.

“Are you getting baptized this Christmas?” she asked.

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Maybe next time.”

“Why?”

“Well . . . I don’t feel ready.”

She looked me in the eye and said, “But you’ll never feel prepared enough for baptism—no one ever does.”

Her words rang in my ears, and that night I sought the Lord in prayer, confessing my reluctance. As I did so, He revealed to me that my excuse of not being ready enough for baptism actually disguised a deep-rooted and flawed conception of myself, and what I thought I needed to do—or had failed to do—as His follower.

Beneath all my excuses and at the heart of my hesitance, was a whisper that I wasn’t worthy enough. And this belief ignored the very crux of Jesus’ redemptive act on the cross:

[B]ecause of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:4-9, emphasis mine)

By grace, not works

On our own merit, we will never be good enough, or ready enough.

But we have been called to be baptized by Jesus Himself (Matthew 28:19-20), because it is a symbolic act of identification with Christ (Romans 6:4). Once I understood this truth, I went to my church leader and told her I wanted to be baptized. I wanted to publicly testify of how God had saved and sanctified me over the last five years of my life.

Baptism is a sign of the beginning of your journey with God, rather than a sign of having arrived.

If you’re like me and haven’t yet been baptized for some reason or another, I encourage you to pray and ask the Lord to reveal if there are any lies or misbeliefs that may be holding you back.

After all, baptism is a sacrament instituted by Jesus and a reflection of God’s glory, grace and goodness—not a benchmark of our own worthiness or deservingness.

 

To learn more about baptism and the Lord’s Supper, check out this Discovery Series: https://discoveryseries.org/discovery-series/baptism-the-lords-supper/

I-Have-Depression-and-This-Is-What-I-Want-You-to-Know

I Have Depression and This Is What I Want You to Know

I never thought that I would have depression. It seemed like something only strangers had. Even when a close friend of mine struggled with depression a few years ago, I couldn’t relate to what she was going through. I just thought of it as a really low period some people had and would eventually get out of, if only they tried hard enough.

Depression was a faraway concept, and “depressed” was a word I used casually when I felt particularly sad. I didn’t understand depression—until it happened to me.

According to the Singapore Mental Health Study conducted in 2010, major depressive disorder is ranked as the most common mental illness, with one in 17 people in Singapore suffering from it at one point or another in their lives.

But reading statistics or stories on mental health issues is one thing; experiencing and living with it is another.

For me, depression was—and is—a heavy cloud hovering above my head, a coldness creeping in my heart, a veil darkening my sight. It’s days of moving slowly and numbly, nights of overflowing tears and thoughts. It’s lashing out against my family while pretending to act like a normal functioning human being in school, in church, and outside. It’s sobbing uncontrollably one moment and feeling nothing at all at another. It’s thinking to myself that I’m getting better one day, and completely breaking down the next.

It’s been three months since I found out what I was going through had a name.

I have depression, and this is what I want you to know.

There is nothing wrong with what you’re feeling

There’s so much stigma surrounding mental disorders that when I first started feeling this way, I felt confused and guilty. Weren’t Christians supposed to be happy all the time? If I had depression, did that mean I was doing something wrong? Was having depression some sort of sin?

An article I came across in Christianity Today said: “While spiritual problems—like habitual or unconfessed sin, lack of faith, or, in rare cases, demonic attack—certainly can trigger depression, those things are often the result of depression, not the cause.”

Don’t beat yourself up for having depression, because it is not your fault. What you’re going through is a mental illness that could stem from a myriad of potential causes, such as genetic vulnerability, significant life events, personal problems, or illnesses. Just as you wouldn’t blame spiritual problems for a fever or a broken leg, you shouldn’t automatically assume the same for depression or any other mental illness.

In my case, my depression was triggered by a particular experience I had undergone.

However, if you do think that your depression may have spiritual causes, talk to your pastor or Christian counselor.

Trust that God is always with you and for you

There were many nights when I felt utterly alone and wretched. There were many occasions when the sadness felt too heavy for my shoulders to bear, and fleeting thoughts of death would cross my mind. I felt like I was wasting away, like my life had been drained of all color and that there was nothing else for me to cling onto.

A few weeks ago, the preacher at my church wrapped up his sermon with one sentence which has stuck in my head since, and which has given me much comfort: God is with us and is for us.

Even though you may feel that everything is meaningless right now, remember that God is, has been, and always will be sovereign, omniscient, powerful, gracious, merciful, loving, kind, and good.

Depression cannot separate you from the love of God, even if you feel numb to it (Romans 8:38-39). Though the nights are long and filled with mourning, remember that joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30:5). He is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction (2 Corinthians 1:3).

God wants to help you. He is on your side in this battle. He sustains and strengthens you. All you need to do is to call upon His name and cling onto Him.

And one way of remembering these precious truths of God is by reminding yourself of them daily—and even more so as you battle with thoughts and feelings of depression.

Turn to Him in prayer, worship and in word

It can be difficult to turn to God, especially when the weight of depression weighs so heavily upon you that opening the Bible or even uttering a prayer feels like a chore. I know, because I’ve felt that way—and sometimes still do.

My mistake was to turn to other lesser means of comforting myself, which would only numb me temporarily without actually filling the aching hole in my heart.

Yet God does wonders with us when we choose to turn to Him. His Word has comforted me greatly in this season—especially the Psalms, which I used to find boring. But now, in the midst of my tears, I can finally empathize with the psalmists who wrote them when they were in great anguish and even on the brink of death. There are many psalms which tell of the psalmists’ suffering and hurt, of turning their eyes to God, of remembering His faithfulness and steadfast love, and of being delivered by his mighty Hand (Psalm 23, 30, 31, 62, 143).

I wrote down verses which God used to speak peace into my heart that surpassed all understanding, and would take them out and read them aloud to myself when I felt the shadows of depression looming. I also listened to worship songs which centered on Christ’s character as my cornerstone. I’m especially thankful for American Christian musician Steffany Gretzinger’s album, The Undoing, which spoke to me in many ways.

It can take effort to look outwards and upwards at God. But it is only Him alone who can give us the peace and comfort that we so desperately seek and need.

Tell someone who can help

At first I couldn’t articulate what exactly I was feeling or going through. All I knew was that I was inexplicably crying, almost mourning, over a deep sadness that wasn’t going away. I have always been close to my family, especially my parents, but I found that I couldn’t and didn’t know how to tell them what was happening to me.

I reached out and told my close friends, a mentor from church and my aunt, many of whom prayed along with me. There were times when I was taking things badly and God used these sisters to share with me Bible verses, a song or words of encouragement which I really needed to hear at that time.

Finally, I began to see a Christian counselor. Over the past two months, she’s been helping me to work through issues which may have triggered my depression.

It’s important to reach out to trusted friends and relatives who can support you in your time of need. If necessary, you may also want to consider seeing a Christian counselor or a doctor if your depression persists. I know how scary it can be to tell your loved ones, and to take that step to speak to a professional, but I’m so grateful that I did. Because without their support, I know that I would still be in a very bad place.

Since then, in God’s goodness and faithfulness, He has been lifting the fog of my depression, little by little. In this difficult and dark season, He has been my light, my strength and my song. He’s placed people in my life who have shown me the love of Christ through their encouragement, support and prayers. Most importantly, in the process He’s been giving me a sweeter and deeper appreciation of who He is, and gently promising me that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

For that, I give Him thanks.

I want you to know that you are not and never will be alone. You are loved as a child of God, who has been, is, and always will be with you and for you. Rest and be still in His love, dear brother and sister.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
— Psalm 139:7-12

Can-You-Really-Travel-to-Find-Yourself

Can You Really Travel to Find Yourself?

I used to consider traveling and its accompanying “find yourself” mantra overrated.

In the 2010 American romantic movie Eat Pray Love, the protagonist, a divorcee, escapes from her daily life in which she feels lost and confused, to “exotic” lands like India, where she finds inner peace and learns to love herself (as well as another man). I’ve always found the logic behind this movie problematic. The idea that one can simply run away from problems to lead a more carefree lifestyle, and return with everything somehow magically resolved is not how life works.

Not only is embarking on a literal journey of self-discovery only for the privileged few with the resources to travel in the first place, most of us will eventually have to return home to the same old struggles, environment and lifestyle. What happens then?

As a middle-class Singaporean, I’ve been blessed to have visited many countries, including the US, Hong Kong, and, most recently, Bhutan.

For 10 days, I traveled around the Land of the Thunder Dragon, as it’s known in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language. Bhutan, which was the country that coined the Gross Happiness Index, is known for being the happiest country in Asia. True to its title, for those 10 days I was the happiest I had ever been in a long time. I hiked up to mountaintop monasteries, had picnic lunches along cliff sides and riverbeds, spent hours soaking in the beautiful scenery, and even got to meet the King of Bhutan. It is one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had in my 23 years on earth, and one which is still sinking in, three weeks after my return to Singapore.

Although I had initially resisted the idea of “finding myself” through travel, I found my trip to Bhutan changing me and my outlook on life.

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Traveling can open your eyes

When we travel, we are suddenly divorced from the vicissitudes of daily life—our responsibilities and commitments, the chaos and noise, the everyday interactions and distractions. Traveling can give us the time, space and freedom to truly reflect on our lives—something which many of us rarely do, especially when we are so immersed in and preoccupied with the daily hustle and bustle of life.

On the long car rides from town to town, which could stretch up to six hours or more, I looked out the window at the passing mountains, streams, and cattle, contemplating about my life. There was no computer or cellphone screen to amuse me, no to-do list to occupy my thoughts. All I had was the nature outside my window and the thoughts inside my head, and I can say that those were my favorite moments of the trip: being able to reflect, write, and worship the Lord.

Traveling can also take us out of our comfort zones, both physically and metaphorically. In Bhutan, I was introduced to an entirely different lifestyle and philosophy. Learning about and adopting their culture for those 10 days changed my attitude towards nature, food, and even certain societal values.

Furthermore, traveling can strengthen your faith and draw you closer to God, while exposing you to the diversity of beliefs and ideologies around the world. In Bhutan, I learned much about Buddhism, the country’s state religion. I found some parallels between Buddhism and Christianity, which shed light on aspects of Christian principles from a different perspective. The idea of being selfless (John 15:12-14), of overcoming greed and ignorance (Luke 12:15, James 1:5), and of respecting all creation (Proverbs 12:10, Psalm 24:1)—from the smallest insect on the road to stray dogs sleeping on the streets—were just some takeaways.

The breathtaking beauty of God’s creation in Bhutan was a solid testament of His creativity, power, and sovereignty. Learning more about the Bhutanese and Buddhist way of life made me realize how there can be valuable truths and lessons found in other religions and societies.

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Traveling to “lose” yourself

At the same time, traveling can also result in you “losing” yourself, if you’re not careful. It can become a distraction in our walk with God, especially when we do nothing other than indulge in satisfying activities such as mindless shopping and feasting. While doing these things can make us happy in the short run, it can also numb us to the better, deeper, spiritual nourishment for our souls.

Being in a foreign country can also tempt us to indulge in fleshly pleasures that we would otherwise avoid back home, just because “you only live once” (#YOLO). These temptations can be strong, especially when we are far from people who hold us accountable, or when we have not been spending time with God praying and reading His Word. For me, one struggle I faced when overseas was committing a specific time to reading and soaking in God’s Word. There were also many temptations that I struggled with, which—on hindsight—makes me wish I had confided in fellow sisters who could have prayed alongside me.

Finding answers

While we may not necessarily “find ourselves” when we travel, we may find some answers. For me, I discovered a different way of living—from treating the environment and animals around me more respectfully, to appreciating the intrinsic value of nature and spirituality—something which I believe we were created to do, but which we can often forget in our modern-day industrial capitalist societies.

But the biggest lesson I learned at the end of it was this: while traveling can offer one a momentary sense of abandonment and independence, it is only the truth of God that can set us free (John 8:32). Though traveling can impart to one feelings of serenity and calmness as one admires the beauty of creation, only the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, can guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7). Though traveling can introduce to us new friends and even lead to the blossoming of relationships, only the love of God will ever be wholly fulfilling and eternal (Romans 8:37-39). God gives us more than what traveling can give to us, and of a deeper, more abiding nature—far more valuable and priceless than any plane ticket or hotel stay.

God created this entire world for His good pleasure and it is our privilege, as His creation, to be a witness to His handiwork—when we can afford to. But even if we can’t, we can most certainly witness His power and presence where we are, right now—it just takes extra effort to see familiar surroundings with fresh eyes.

Through my travels, I have learned much about the world around me. Of course, one’s experiences abroad will differ, depending on where one travels to, whom one travels with, and what one’s intentions are. Is it about discovering the world and people with an open heart, or to gratify more self-serving desires?

I had intended to write an article rubbishing the idea of “finding yourself”, but I came back from my trip with a much more nuanced and multidimensional picture of what traveling can offer. And I suppose that is the beauty of traveling—the opening of eyes, the finding of some answers, and maybe, just maybe, a step towards finding ourselves in God.

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Photos Contributed by Wendy Wong