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happy mother’s day – I’ll tell you why my mother is a remarkable woman by any measure.

It’s Mother’s Day! I’m single-dating her tonight and I hope that she would have enjoyed the food and the company of her favourite son (Ha!). And since I (think I) am a writer, I will of course blog about my mother on this day that rightly belongs to her.

Mummy, I know you’re reading this – I love you and I want you to know that I am immensely proud of you for raising Maisie and me. You have done a remarkable job with your limited resources and no amount of words will do justice to the sacrifice that you have put in. But I do hope that you will be honoured this way – because I respect and love you very much. 放心,我和妹妹会照顾你的!

***

I found the transcript of an email interview my mentor Peter Lim conducted with me. It was part of his article for Motherhood magazine. And I was hoping that this may turn out to be a good read. This document dates back to June 2006 – so what you are about to read is my perspective half a decade ago, when I was still in the Army. And I’d like to think I’ll probably answer these questions in the same way if I am asked again today.

Anyhow, I’m publishing the document as it is. Enjoy the read. (:

1. Do you mind if I title it (the article): “Our mum is a divorcee”? And you can send me a happy smiling picture of yourself and your sister?

>>> Ya, actually I do mind. Because I never saw her as a divorcee. So I don’t want others to think that we think of her that way. In my head and heart she’s one amazing super mother. She’s living proof that you can raise two kids properly without a husband and with income that could only make ends meet. Her sacrifice is second to none. Perhaps you could skew your title to something with sacrifice? I’ll leave the coining of the title to you then.

2. How old were both of you when your parents divorced?

>>> Maisie and I were 5 and 8 years old respectively when our parents officially divorced.

3. Did you know why they divorced?

>>> Over the years, many different reasons have surfaced; some were conventional ones like financial disputes and failure to meet expectations, but there are also a couple of reasons that I cannot share because it’s just too personal. Both our father and mother gave us different perspectives on why the marriage failed; and of course they absolved themselves of any traces of blame. When we were younger we couldn’t understand why, but now that we are older, we see a much clearer picture by piecing all these information together. We’d blame neither of them for what has happened – or we’d blame the both of them.

4. What were your reactions then? (Or were you too young to understand?)

>>> At 5 and 8 years old, I honestly think we were too young to understand. The fact that I existed in a single-parent family only hit me when I was 15 years old. It hit my sister too, but differently. I hated my father for not being around, for not lighting my path to manhood, for not disciplining me etc., etc. Kids who have their fathers by their side through their growing up years will never understand what I went through so I’d say to treasure your father – they are a gift from God to their children. My sister struggled with another set of hurts; once the apple of her father’s eye, she found herself “demoted” to second-best when my father remarried and his wife bore him a son. She was no longer daddy’s girl and not being able to approach our Papa like the loving father that he used to be that hurt her the most.

5. What do you feel is missing (if anything at all) from a single-parent family?

>>> Nothing is missing from a single-parent family. 3 is a whole number and not an odd number. Our mother has done such a remarkable job at playing different roles you couldn’t tell that we were from a single-parent home. It did help that we became Christians; in church, we’ve been blessed to have a lot of brothers and sisters, both young and old, to love and protect us. Our maternal and paternal relatives are also a closely knit group. Maisie and I were never lacking in any area.

6. Do you compare yourselves to friends who have both parents in their growing up years?

>>> Comparisons are inevitable. We look at “complete” families and although we are delighted for them, we also feel a tinge of envy. But we wouldn’t have traded our single-parent upbringing for an “ideal” family (by the world’s standard). Our family background has allowed us to experience things that some kids would never even imagine. It has made us stronger, wiser and certainly more independent than most kids. We are more aware of what’s going on around us and there’s this unmistakable drive that Maisie and I both have; I firmly believe this was birthed out of a unique upbringing.

7. In your parents’ case, was there anything positive in being divorced (from your perspectives, not theirs)?

>>> Our mother married our father when she was 20 years old. She had her firstborn at 22 years old. While it was common for women in the past to marry early, it also meant that she never had the chance to “see the world”, and had to care and provide for her own family at a premature age. The divorce allowed her to expand her horizons, social circle and of course the way she perceives things.

>>> For our father, as he was the initial custodian to us both, his life revolved around us. His first and last thoughts of the day were of and for us. He was quite an extraordinary father. However, due to circumstances, my sister moved in with my mother after a couple of years, and I followed suit after another couple of years. I believe my dad’s life picked up from there. To date, I’m not sure if the path he chose (to start another family) was what he desired, or what he needed to do to feel normal again.

>>> Both of them have become a very different person from who they knew each other to be.

8. What’s your advice to parents who are divorcing/divorced, in relation to consideration for their kids?

>>> Regardless of marital status, always be there for your children whenever they need you. Your children belong to both of you, not one of you. It is possible to raise good and sensible kids even if you are divorced, but it requires an intentional and active sacrifice. Time is the greatest gift you can give to your children. Your presence makes a difference in their lives so don’t let your absence become the difference in their lives.

Three is a whole number – still happy and smiling today.
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my journey to Jesus Christ – a personal testimony.

I’ve always been grateful to God for His grace that has seen me through my growing-up years. For me to be serving Him full-time as a youth minister is a long shot from what was actually intended for me by default of my family’s heritage. Many of you would have heard this before so please bear with me as I share my conversion story again. After all, telling of God’s redemptive plan never gets old.

Caution: this is a long read – prepare the tidbits. (P/S: I’ve already kept it brief!)

I am the firstborn of my generation in a traditional Taoist family. When my parents divorced in 1991, I stayed with my grandmother and my father (for he had the legals rights to my custody). Our flat was a make-shift temple (but some of the devotees probably saw a temple in a make-shift flat, if you know what I mean). I vividly remember the day I counted with my index finger, statue by statue, the number of idols we worshipped – over 130. Yes, it’s a staggeringly scary number. Every August, my family would organise a festival to the celebrate the birthday of the main deity of our temple. Throngs of people would be in attendance and I was always actively involved. There were more people who came to my house to offer incense, ask for protection, consult mediums (yes, possessions took place at my home regularly) than to visit my grandmother, who is the custodian of the temple. Being the eldest grandchild, I was supposed to take over the temple from my uncle, who played the role of a general manager, of sorts. I was exposed to a lot of the operations; I knew and could recognise all the deities by their dialect salutations, chanted during rituals, played the “worship” music (of drums and cymbals) and of course, mixed with tattoo-clad gangster three times my age. They said I had so much “spiritual potential” that I was made the godson of two prominent deities and I was the youngest “layman” to be involved in all the activities. I certainly enjoyed the attention and favour everyone bestowed to me and I reveled in it.

Despite being in a missionary institution (Anglo-Chinese School), I only heard about Jesus Christ when I was in Primary Four, at an external Scripture Union Primary Age camp that my science teacher invited me to go along with her. It was then that my discovery of Christianity begun. I remember talking to my grandmother about the camp and how I may want to follow this “Jesus”. Needless to say, I received a huge dressing-down. A year later, after a school excursion to Haw Par Villa, where we took a boat into the “18 Levels of Hell”, I became tremendously afraid of dying – more specially of ending up in hell. I remember the night that I couldn’t sleep because I was mentally disturbed by all the different punishments I saw in “Hell”; liars had their tongues cut off, murderers were cruelly decapitated and thieves were violently amputated – I was guilty of all these sins and I didn’t want to end up as a mere lump of flesh forever. In tears, I walked out to the living room and had a Papa-I-don’t-want-to-die-and-go-to-hell conversation with my father. Two years later, after the Primary Six Leaving Examination (PSLE), I attended a Christian Fellowship camp organised by my school. I have no recollection how I even signed up for it. Nonetheless, it was at that camp that I gave my life to Jesus. My motivation was simple – I didn’t want to go to hell and John 3:16 was the deciding factor for my conversion. I’m being honest here; I didn’t really embrace the idea of suffering something worse than death itself for all of eternity. The person who led me in the sinner’s prayer was Brother Alan Lim. Here’s the excerpt of what I remember about my conversion conversation:

Alan Lim“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Me: You mean, I just need to believe?

AL: Yes, it’s as simple as that.

Me: You mean, I won’t go to hell and be tortured after I die?

AL: You will have eternal life with Jesus.

Me: You mean, it’s free?

AL: Yes, it is free.

Me: Okay then, I want to be a Christian.

AL: All right, I will lead you in a “sinner’s prayer” but do you know that once you say this, there’s no turning back?

Me: Yes, I know.

AL: Good, let’s pray then. Repeat after me, “Dear Jesus…”

That was it – I didn’t want to go to hell and this “Jesus” person offered me a way out of it. It was free and I didn’t need to do anything except to confess with my mouth and believe in my heart. I mean, it’s a no-brainer deal! Who wouldn’t accept this offer? I certainly wanted this “eternal life” and as a simple-minded Primary Six boy, I was completely sold by this salvation idea. I had to keep this conversion a secret for a good four years before I finally decided to declare it to my grandmother. It was a Sunday and I remember telling it to her while we were together in a taxi (and I still remember that conversation taking place when the cab was travelling along Lower Delta Road, turning left into the slip road that connected to Tiong Bahru Road, towards Redhill MRT station). Strangely enough, I can’t remember how I started the conversation. But she was aware that I have missed the August festival for four years running now.

Me: Ah Ma,你知道我现在是信耶稣了,每个星期天都会去教堂的。(Grandma, do you know that I believe in Jesus now and attend church every Sunday?)

Grandma: 我当然知道啦,我不管你要信什么,你变乖就好。(Of course I know. But I don’t care what you believe in, so long as you become obedient.)

You see, when I stayed with Ah Ma for those four years in that four-room Jalan Besar flat, I was a terrible and horrible kid to look after. I have stolen from my own grandmother, the neighbourhood convenience store and even the departmental store in a shopping centre. Everyday, I hung out with hooligans until midnight, gambled, accompanied them to extort money, threatened people and participated in activities that terrorised the neighbourhood; many times my grandmother had to personally search for me at 11pm. I spewed vulgarities (in dialect) like it was second-nature to me. I’ve changed tutors 11 times in three years and I constantly escaped from tuition and even made a couple of (lady) tutors cry. I basically had no regard for authority. Mind you, I had “achieved” all these as a primary school kid; that’s right – I was on my way to becoming “yellow chinese trash”, as I would affectionately call myself. I had “boys’ home”, “juvenile delinquent” and “no future” written on my forehead. I wasn’t an unintelligent boy, but my ill-discipline nearly caused me to be thrown to EM3 (the weakest academic band) during the Primary Four Streaming Examinations.

My close shave with EM3 was the last straw for my mother. She acted quickly, just like how she “saved” my sister from this destructive environment a couple of years ago. She took this opportunity to gain complete custody of me, and my sister and I were reunited after being separated from one another for a few years. I moved to peaceful Ghim Moh from turbulent Jalan Besar; it has been the three of us ever since 1995. By God’s grace(!), I made it through the PSLE with 4 A’s and I remember doing it without any additional tuition (as my mother could not afford it). It was a miracle now that I think about it, no matter how I look at it. I am certain that God was massively involved in redeeming me and I am certain that there must have been people who were interceding for me. I was the first amongst my immediate family to be saved, then my sister (although she attended church before me), then my mother. Again, by God’s grace, the five eldest grandchildren of my paternal family are all Christians now and they serve God actively in their respective churches. I was no longer that repulsive primary school boy that my grandmother used to look after and my significant turnaround was certainly obvious to her. No wonder she said it doesn’t matter what or who I believed in, so long as I became obedient.

(Okay, that sharing was a little longer than I had imagined… And I’ve really enjoyed writing all that… But) I shall come to my main point now.

A lot of people have told me, “Wow, Joey, you have such a good testimony! My testimony is so boring…”

But I beg to differ, for I merely have a dramatic testimony.

To me, a good testimony is this:

“I am obedient to my parents; I study hard in school; I attend church with my family every Sunday; I go for cell group every week; I am well-behaved and even-tempered; I read the Bible and memorise the Word of God; I spend time with God daily; I treat everyone with respect; I love my brothers and sisters-in-Christ; I pray for my friends and constantly encourage them; I serve God actively in church; I take care of those who are in need; I heed the advice of my pastors, mentors and leaders; I am faithful, available and teachable; I love God, love His Word and His people.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that a person who has that kind of story to tell is a remarkable individual for that life demonstrates years of obedience and courage to be different from everyone else; I opine that you don’t need to fall away from grace to experience God’s grace. Everyone has a story to tell and it is the element of a changed life by a great God that makes the testimony powerful and effective.

I may have a captivating story to tell of God’s grace, redemption and goodness in my life, and God has certainly used it to glorify Himself in the last 15 years. But that’s just me! For every one drug addict or ex-convict who turns his life to Jesus, there will be nine others who fall to the wayside. In Revelation 12:11, we know that we will overcome the evil one by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony; the Word of God doesn’t indicate that this testimony needs to be dramatic or good – but that we simply do our part to testify, which means that we ought to tell others about what God has done in our lives. Never, ever, underestimate your testimony simply because it’s a simple one.

The key here isn’t to compare your story with mine but to tell you my story, and for you to tell me yours, so that at the end of the day, God gets all the glory. May I urge you to always testify no matter where you are, who you’re with, or what you do, for you never know how God will use your testimony to display His awesome glory and amazing redemption. Let’s save some, by all means possible!

a note to those from single-parent families.

My parents have been divorced since I was 8 years old – that’s 19 years now. Within two decades, I’ve moved from Ghim Moh, to Jalan Besar, back to Ghim Moh, to Bishan Street 13, then to Bishan Street 11 and finally, I’m back at Ghim Moh (same block, same storey, just seven units away). Just as I’ve changed addresses, my mentality towards this increasingly common social phenomenon has also shifted as I matured in age, wisdom and spirituality. Did I ever wish that I came from a “normal” family? Yeah, of course I did – why not? But would I trade my family and upbringing for a “normal” one? Not a chance.

There are many things I’ve learnt in these years and over time I’ll share my insights. But tonight, I felt led to share about an often misunderstood subject – roles – especially the roles of a son and a brother, for that’s what I’m most familiar with. (This post is not a testimony of my journey as a single-parent kid for if I were to document God’s grace and goodness to my family, it could only be contained in a book.)

Two of God’s greatest gifts in my life reside with me – my mother and sister. I’d be the first to admit that we’re a dysfunctional family – try removing a pivotal figure (i.e. a father) from a family cluster, and see if this family can function normally; I am confident that their definition of “normal” would be rewritten many times over, just like mine was. And so I’ve already grown accustomed to how life would be “unfair”. I’ve stopped lamenting a while ago and I’ve gotten over my emo days as a rebellious teenager who got angry at just about anything and everything. Each of you are at a different stage of your journey in a single-parent family and the sooner you realise that life is (or will be) different, and the sooner you come to terms with the “what-did-I-do-to-deserve-this” phase, the lighter your load becomes.

First up, to the sons (or daughters):

Are you playing “husband” to your mother? Do you sometimes catch yourself sitting beside her to listen to her woes like a caring husband would? Do you spend time with her hoping that you’d fill the void that was created by your father? Do you spoil her with gifts in hope that she’d feel pampered like an adored wife? May I humbly request, from experience, that you stop role-playing? Let me explain.

For the longest time, I found myself (subconsciously or consciously) playing the role of a husband to my mother. Sometimes out of responsibility and sometimes out of sympathy. I felt like it was my duty as the son who bears the surname of her husband to fill the void in her life created by my father; I simply wanted to replace a husband’s absence. I won’t share why their marriage didn’t work out, but I have learnt to accept that their failure had nothing to do with me. Similarly, I’d say the same thing to you – you had nothing to do with your parents’ divorce – so stop blaming yourself and stop doing things out of obligation or duty. It’s an unwarranted burden to shoulder and you’d be better off not carrying it. Remember, like it or not, no matter what you do, you will never fill the void in her life that was vacated by her husband. Simply put, you will never become her husband. Case closed. So stop trying.

Next, to the brothers (or sisters), especially those who are firstborns:

Are you trying to “father” your younger sibling? Do you sometimes find yourself scolding and disciplining your sister, like strict and stern father would? Do you dispense advice to her, like a wise father would? Do you get riled up whenever she gets bullied, like a protective father would? Do you shower her with presents, like a doting father would? Do you act fatherly so that she could experience what it feels like to be “Daddy’s girl”? Again, if I may humbly request, for her good and for your own good, please stop role-playing. Let me explain.

I found myself playing the role of a father to my younger sister. I would chide her harshly when she made mistakes and I’d demand respect from her just like my father would. When we were younger, I imposed restrictions on her and curtailed some of her activities because I felt that it was my duty to playing the role of the missing father at home. Before she started earning her own income, I would, from time to time, bring her out on shopping sprees because I didn’t want her to feel like she had no one to dote on or spend lavishly on her. But I realised that no matter what I did, I could never become my sister’s “Papa”. I could never pinch her cheeks or rub her face against my bearded face, like my father could. I could never give her that nod of approval, like my father could. And no matter how many times I told her that I was proud of her, I could never make her feel the pride of a father.

And so, whether I liked it or not, no matter what I did, I could never fill the void in her life that was vacated by my father. Simply put, I could never become her father. Case closed. So I stopped trying. And you should too, if you are still at it. You have limitations – learn to accept them.

Freedom comes when you realise that you need not play more than what your role demands of you to do. Many years ago, I arrived at the tipping point of frustration in my family. It was over a casual lunch at IKEA that the Holy Spirit spoke through CX and that caused a breakthrough in my roles in the family. I remember to this day her golden words. She simply said (with that legendary CX-stare), “Joey, I want you to stop playing the role of a husband and a father.” It was an epiphany of sorts for me. I began to relinquish these roles that I’ve been unnecessarily playing over the past decade. And after a month of letting go, I felt lighter and less frustrated.

So I’d encourage you to relate to your single-parent or your sibling like a son or brother would. Make your mother feel like a 世上只有妈妈好 mother. Make your sister feel like a sister that everyone is proud of. Of course you can love them to the best of your abilities, but I’m telling you to care for your mother as a son would, buy gifts for your sister as a brother would, spend time with and listen to your mother’s complaints as a son would, and dispense advice and counsel to your sister as a brother would – you get the idea.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that you should tell your mother about your weekly victories and defeats – for that is something a son does. Be a “Mama’s boy”. Tell her about the people who treated you well and badly at work and proudly show off to her your accomplishments in the workplace and ministry. Allow her to share your burdens, even though you may think that she’s already heavy-laden and overloaded. She’s your mother and she will always care for and love you no matter how tough it gets for her, and nothing’s ever going to change her sacrificial behaviour. Your role then, if I could put it this way, is to reinforce her role as a mother and not substitute yourself as her husband. Make her feel like she’s the best mother in the world – make that your priority.

And for your sister, I’d also go as far as to say that you guide and advise her, and give her a platform to share her life with you – for that is something a brother does. Captivate her with your life stories, inspire her with your exemplary behaviour and make her laugh with your silly mistakes. Become the man that she’d benchmark her future boyfriend against. Be the brother that all younger sisters look up to and respect. In fact, you should also annoy and irritate her – for most brothers do that! It’s all part of being a brother! Your role then, if I could phrase it this way, is to reinforce her role as a sister and not substitute yourself as her father. Make her feel like she’s the best sister a brother could ever have or dream of – make that your priority.

In a day and age where marriages are wrecked by infidelity and financial woes, I can’t help but to believe that more and more of my youths will struggle with their parents being separated or divorced. My heart goes out to them, but I will say that it is not the end of the road – it wasn’t for me. Our God is a good God and His sovereign plan is something that we should come to love and trust. Let me set the record straight – a single-parent family is NOT the passport or excuse to a messed-up life; similarly, a normal family is also NOT the passport to a blessed life. My friend, your destiny is in your hands; it’s got nothing to do with your parents’ successes or failures. Now, get that in your head and start living your life for the glory of God – that’s my current and biggest priority.

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