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death is a full-stop.

How do you know what will happen tomorrow? For your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.

James 4:14 (New Living Translation)

All of us share one thing in common – we are going to die one day. Love it or hate it, it will come true. Every complete sentence contains a full-stop. Death truly is the ultimate statistic for one out of one dies. Incidentally, just over these couple of days, Singapore witnessed the sudden and completely unexpected passing of a 19-year-old Darren Ng at Downtown East. It saddens me greatly that such a tragedy has taken place and more so because the boy is so young and it was over such a trivial matter! Sigh… But it also reminds us all that the only sure thing about life is death.

James addressed these businessmen because they spoke with such certainty and presumptuousness. His reply in verse 14 is straightforward, honest and in-your-face – “You don’t even know what will happen tomorrow”. We have a tendency to believe that we are in control of our lives, but to that, James retorted, “Your life is almost like smoke – now you see it, now you don’t!”

Morning mist is never seen in the afternoon; we’re here now but we can be gone tomorrow. However, sometimes we live like we’re going to be here forever but the fact remains – we’re not. Are you living to die or dying to live? I believe that once you learn how to die, you learn how to live. Let’s live our lives knowing that death is sure to come but that we have no idea when it’s going to arrive.

It’s common to hear (young) people saying that they will serve God when they enter a freer period of their lives. Let’s face it – there will never be a season of life where you will be less busy than you are now. (Besides, you can’t even guarantee that you’ll enter that period.) After secondary school, you have tertiary education; and after that, you’ve got to build your career; then you have a family to start and raise… There’s no end to it. Are you going to wait until you’re dead before you serve God? If you want to do something for Jesus, whether it is in church or not, do it now. Don’t be presumptuous and think that you have tomorrow to serve God because tomorrow may never come!

I was only afraid of death once in my entire life. And that was when I learnt about the hell that was presented in Haw Par Villa; it was actually the catalyst for my conversion to Christianity from Taoism. However, I don’t think the biblical hell is actually like that – I think it’s worse. That excursion made me ponder about death and honestly, my initial motivation to be a Christian was simply to escape this place called hell. I heard John 3:16 and I wanted eternal life because I wanted a ticket out of hell. Nothing else mattered. It was only two years later that I started to be serious about my faith.

Whether you admit it or not, deep down inside you, you fear the idea of death. But I believer that it’s not death that we fear, but the judgment after death that we fear even more. Whether you’re a Christian or not, you instinctively know that you have to stand before a higher being (God) to account for your life.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of judgment.

First, those who don’t know Jesus Christ will be cast out of the presence of God forever. They will go to a place devoid of God’s presence. And I think to be separated from God’s presence forever is a terrible, horrible and miserable thing. Every time I sin, I feel a temporal emptiness and I absolutely abhor it; I cannot imagine what life would be like if I didn’t have God’s presence. To me, an eternity like that is unimaginably painful.

But when you are faced with the fear of death, you must remember that Jesus Christ has won over death and through Him there is eternal life. Our Saviour has saved us from eternal death! It is my prayer that regardless of how far you have drifted away, you return to Jesus and fall in love with Him all over again.

The second judgment is for those who know Jesus; this is when you will meet God face to face and He will determine your heavenly reward based on what you have done for Christ. What would God say to you? Would He say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” or would He say something else?

You must remember that life is a question-mark and death is a full-stop. But I thank God that that’s not the end of it; this is where God’s grace enters the picture. He calls for us to constantly align ourselves to Him. In fact, that’s what James has resolved to tell us in the next three verses.

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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 decade of lessons learnt.

A few weeks ago, MF approached me to send her some lessons learnt while I was growing up. It wasn’t difficult coming up with content and I could write a lot more but here are 10 lessons that rolled off the top of my head. Seven of them were published in the R-AGE bulletin, so I’ll add three more here.

  1. You will make mistakes. Just don’t make the same ones.
  2. You will only get busier and busier, so start the habit of serving God as early as possible.
  3. School friends are friends for a season. Church friends are friends for life.
  4. Accountability doesn’t imprison you but sets you free.
  5. Having someone believe in you is the greatest gift you’ll ever receive.
  6. Never underestimate the power of encouraging someone else.
  7. No amount of ministry can compensate for failure in the familly.
  8. The quantity of close friends decreases as you age, but the quality of friendship increases. Invest more time in less people.
  9. You cannot please everyone, so stop trying. There is nothing more assuring than God’s approval.
  10. The higher you rise in leadership, the more you need to be comfortable with being alone.

I guess I could go on and on with a plethora of thoughts, really. That’s precisely why I have decided to resume blogging – to capture one thought a day, everyday, from an otherwise overwhelming influx of ideas. It’d be an achievement if I could capture and expand on 365 thoughts annually. Let’s see how far this blog would take me on my cognitive journey.

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