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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!

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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.

how do you stop swearing?

Growing up in a pretty nasty neighbourhood in Jalan Besar, I picked up all kinds of language from gangsters and pseudo-gangsters. In retrospect, it must have been quite a sight to hear a prepubescent boy spewing endless vulgarities in a high-pitched voice, at people who were probably twice his size. I must have been possessed to have such guts.

Being educated in Anglo-Chinese School only made it worse. If I learnt lewd dialect in the rougher neighbourhood environment, then I certainly balanced it off with an equivalent amount of profane English words in a polished and cultured institution. Swearing became a part of my vocabulary and it was a routine for me as a 14-year-old to curse in hellish language on weekdays and to praise the Lord with hallelujah language on weekends.

I was a hypocrite and a terrible testimony in how I used my tongue for good and for evil.

The use of vulgarity could be habitual; it gets dangerous when this bad habit becomes chronic. Regardless of your religious beliefs, there’s nothing worth boasting about if you are expending an arsenal of damning words in your daily usage. You could be 13 years old or 30 years old and still there won’t be a good reason to employ the use of abusive words. I’d like to believe that in a professional (or even in a social) setting, it is a massive turn-off if you carelessly and subconsciously allow vulgarities to roll off your lips. The scary thing about swearing is that there no longer seems to be any societal standard anymore. These negative expressions have been infused into our culture and it has become the neutral norm, unfortunately. No one frowns at a cussing teenager anymore.

Personally, I have enforced a no-swearing rule wherever I went, so long as I was allowed to exercise authority – be it with my tank platoon, colleagues or in TeamR-AGE. And just very recently through REAL2010, I also enforced a complete boycott of all lewd words – including DMN, SHT and WHL. I’m proud of my REAL champs for this achievement of the epilation of vulgarities in their communication. I used to toss these three words frivolously, but now, the mere sound of these words make me cringe and become instantly uncomfortable.

But that’s my conviction and I do not wish to shove it down anyone’s throat; I’d be careful not to get too legalistic. This doesn’t make me a better Christian, of course, but I think it makes me a more effective witness for Jesus. I pay special attention to the words that I use not because I am concerned about my personal reputation or because I’m a youth minister. I scrutinise my language because I am more concerned about the reputation of Jesus, whom I’m an ambassador of.

I fondly remember a particular sermon at my first Grace Retreat in 1997, that turned my life around; DF, the founder of R-AGE, preached about “Bullseye Living” and it was at the altar call that I rededicated my wretched, hypocritical and double-headed life back to Jesus. I consciously and willingly (not emotionally) decided to make Christ my bullseye that afternoon and to start to live like a real Christian. The first thing that the Spirit prompted me to change, was to cease swearing immediately.

Honestly, I don’t know how you behave when you’re out there; I don’t know if you’re the same person at home, in school and in church. A lot of you may struggle to quit this destructive and seemingly incurable habit of swearing. I’d like to offer you some advice – and the method which I practised to great effect to help me kick this awful habit.

I simply prayed and asked the Spirit to help me stop swearing. Then I simply decided not to swear anymore. And that was it – an instantaneous decision that resulted in an instantaneous change – cold turkey, if you know what I mean. I returned to school after that June vacation and left all my baggage and bad habits buried at the foot of the cross.

If I, someone with a comprehensive knowledge of destructive vulgarity in all languages, could overcome swearing overnight, then surely you can do it too. Ask the Spirit to help you and by the grace of God you will eradicate all unwholesome talk and commence to use your tongue for His glory alone. I’m praying for you!

can i dream with You?

In life, there are many things that we share in common; dreams are one (and nightmares are another, but let’s not go there today). We tend to associate positivity to dreams (e.g. daydreaming always seems light and fluffy, after all it can’t be scary building sandcastles in the sky, right?); and we tie in negative connotations to nightmares. There are, however, dreams that well, are just neutral.

Like most of you, I can’t quite recall the majority of my dreams. I do recall a few particular (bizarre) ones, such as:

  1. It was 1994 and the first World Cup I watched. Brazil won Italy on penalties and it was Italy’s maestro Roberto Baggio who missed that decisive last kick. I was Signore Baggio and I remember placing the football on the penalty spot. The millions of spectators in the stadium were rapturous in their chanting of “JOEY! JOEY!” (Yes, indulge me, please). Very non-chalently, I silenced all of them with a wave of my hand and I knelt down to gather a handful of grass. (This is when it gets crazy…) I put one blade of grass into my mouth… And I shouted, “MEE GORENG!!!” (!!!) This catapulted everyone into delirium and they began their choruses of “MEE GORENG! MEE GORENG!” I went on to score of course, not that it mattered anymore. Crazy, I know.
  2. A part of my childhood was spent in the messy precinct of Jalan Besar and that was when I was really into Taoism – deities, ghosts, spirits, souls blah blah blah. It was also the time that I was really into Ghostbusters… (Yes, the TV/movie series with Marshmallow Man.) I recall being able to fly and manoeuvre around the estate on some cool skateboard machine. My main task each evening was to heroically exterminate the spooky beings in the (there’s-something-strange-in-the-)neighbourhood. I did that with ease and a dash of suave of course, shooting out from my bazooka green, acidic, slimy blobs of I-don’t-know-what and sucking the vermin into an ashtray-shaped ghost containment unit. As with all crazy dreams, before the mission was over, I ended up RECRUITING these ghosts instead. There is no sense in this, of course.
  3. When I am stressed, I almost always end up dreaming about looking for a needle in a haystack. (Cliche, but that’s the most normal bizarre dream…)
  4. And when I am very stressed, I dream about eating a piece of cake that grows bigger and bigger with each mouthful, and this stupid piece of cake (I remember it to be a strawberry shortcake) grows to the size of a HDB flat! It gets really insane because I’m supposed to finish eating a piece of cake that doesn’t quite finish!

These are the four dreams that come to my mind all the time, but I think if I had the time, I’d be able to pen down a few more ridiculous ones. Does anyone have crazy (or crazier) or recurring dreams like that? Do share!

On a more serious note, I actually am of the opinion that creativity takes place in the purest form in dreams. It’s as if each night we go to sleep with a white canvas, beckoning God to paint on it. Think about it, there are absolutely no limits in dreams; I can be anyone, doing anything, at anywhere I desire, at anytime I determine and with or without anyone. To an extent, it is when we actually get to experience what CREATING is like. (With God as the supreme Creator, I opine that human beings have absolutely no creativity. We are only able to innovate because everything that we “create” is but a reference from something else that already exists. More on that in another entry…)

Hence with dreams potentially serving as such powerful platforms, I’m inclined to do what I wanted to do some time ago – put a small notebook beside my pillow and to jot down, in whatever semi-conscious state I am in in the immediate aftermath of any dream. This is as good as getting free downloads from the Creator of the universe. Sounds lunatic, but dreaming actually taps into the creative power of God. (I say that very loosely and irresponsibly, of course.)

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that new songs and poems can be written and inspired by dreams. Dreaming is the playground for divine revelation and forward thinking. Our (finite) imagination is the platform for infinite possibilities. Holy smoke, I don’t even know how those statements came about. I believe that dreaming (whether day or night) transports us to places that our human eyes cannot see and our cognition cannot handle. We should not underestimate what (the work of God in) our minds are capable of accomplishing.

Of late, I keep dreaming of one particular action but in different scenes; I dream that I’m running against the wind – be it in football matches, away from crooks, chasing buses or even just regular jogging. Wind (or resistance), be it external or internal, is the immediate obstacle that is common to all, that all of us must overcome. I have mine and you have yours, in varying intensities. It’s always easier to cycle downhill or swim with the current; but it is running against resistance that train muscles and going against opposition that confidence is built up. These song lyrics sum up my sentiment perfectly:

逆风的方向,更适合飞翔;我不怕千万人阻挡,只怕自己投降。- 五月天:《倔强》

(Translated: Traveling against the wind is the best way to take flight; I’m not afraid of the opposition of a million people, I only fear my own surrender.)

I haven’t the faintest clue how this article evolved into this ending but I’m glad it did anyway; I just kept typing. In a sense, I put into practice what Finding Forrester advocates:

“No thinking – that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!”

Spoken like a classic Sanguine, without first dreaming, we are never going to get anywhere. Dreaming without action may be useless and a complete waste of resources but without dreaming we have no solid action to execute at all! Let’s engage God in our dreams. Can I dream with You?

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