1) From one Presbyterian Church to another
In Regent College, I bought a book by on Biblical Theology. After reading this thin book, my interest in Biblical Theology increased. The Presbyterian Church I was attending at the beginning of the year was moderately Calvinistic and strong in its biblical-theological teaching and preaching. That was good. It was however more conservative, rather than charismatic – though not anti-charismatic. Therefore, I still longed for a charismatic element in my Christian and Church life and started to look for a Church I would be more comfortable in. Somehow (by God’s amazing providence), by talking with one of the leaders of the Church, I got to know there was a charismatic Presbyterian Church in Singapore. Because of my appreciation for the Reformed and Charismatic worlds, I was excited to find out more about this Church. After a couple of emails with a youth pastor from this charismatic Presbyterian Church and a meeting with the senior pastor, I eventually attended the Church and settled down there from the middle of 1999.
2) Serving in the youth ministry and eventually leaving the Church
It was indeed good to finally settle down in the Church. Though initially I started attending this charismatic Presbyterian Church because I had hoped to find a good balance of Reformed and Charismatic teachings and practices there, eventually my reason for settling down there was due more to my responsibilities and service in the Church – I can’t exactly say this Church was both Reformed and Charismatic as hardly anyone knew what the term “Reformed” was there! The Church wasn’t really Reformed in its teaching nor did I find some of its charismatic elements that biblical or balanced. But then again, it’s hard to find a Church with that balance of good biblical teachings and preaching and openness to the Spirit’s move in a biblical way. After all, no Church is perfect and it’s very hard to keep that balance. Perhaps the Church that is closest to my ideal Church would be Covenant Life Church pastored by C.J. Mahaney of PDI (now Sovereign Grace Churches). I wished there were a PDI Church here in Singapore, but there wasn’t any!
The vision of seeing more balance in Churches was still burning in my heart. I guess it would always be! I wish I could worship in a Church with that balance. But the fact that I couldn’t find one that I would be more or less comfortable in shouldn’t cause me to continue searching and hopping from one Church to another till I find one. I knew I needed to settle down and serve in a Church. It has been over 2 years of moving around and this wasn’t good for my spiritual well being. I do have a high view of the Church – in the sense that I think it is very important to be part of a community of believers and serve among them. I believe a close fellowship of the Saints is important for one’s spiritual growth.
Being a youth and young at heart, I wanted to serve in the youth ministry. And I did so. I served as a cell group leader in the youth ministry from November 1999 till the end of 2001. It was an exciting and no doubt a challenging and a great learning experience! Even though I had no experience of being part of a church cell group before, nor formal training in leading a cell group, I knew the importance of being part of a cell group and have read up on and discussed a lot about cell groups.
My two years plus as a Youth Cell Group Leader and being part of the Youth Ministry there have definitely been memorable. Though it was definitely not smooth sailing! But then, I had not expected it would be so. I believe one grows and learns only when one encounters problems and experiences stuff. Therefore, there were both highs and lows during that time.
I made many friends during my time there – some friends I’m sure I would treasure for life. That’s very important to me. Perhaps equally important was how I learnt more about myself and youths. Before I went into the Youth Ministry, I went in with high expectations. I went in thinking everyone would be as excited as me. I came out understanding more about myself (self-awareness) and more about others. As you get to know more people, you get to encounter very different people with very different personalities. Meeting them has helped me broaden my view of the world. As you get to know more and more people in life, perhaps the constant thing you will always learn is that people are all very different – I’m talking here personality wise, but this also applies to a person’s beliefs and outlook in life.
My time there has made me realize how different I am from most people – how idealistic I am in many ways. On the outside, I may appear to some as easy going, but deep inside, I have a very clear sense of purpose, direction and what I want to do in life. When I set my mind to something, I would put my whole heart in it. And I don’t settle for second best! In a way, I am a perfectionist. I had expected the other youths to be as passionate as I am in the things of God, to be passionate about studying the Bible and theology, to be passionate about finding more about the world around them…etc. Instead, I realize how Singaporean youths can be so preoccupied with their studies that they don’t really take time to think and reflect on their faith, the world and what is being taught to them. The intensive but rigid Singaporean education system has a great part to play in creating people who lack critical and creative thinking. The rote learning we’ve been brought up with has made robots of people – people who conform to accepted norms of thinking and who can’t think “out-of-the-box.” (Perhaps I should say this is so of most youths and people not just from Singapore but that it’s pretty much common in most countries. The Singaporean educational and political context definitely makes it worse but I think critical and reflective thinking has suffered much due to the multimedia, TV-centered age we’re living in).
I realized that if we want outstanding leaders, we need people to grow up questioning, to grow up with some dissenting views – people full of inquisitiveness and curiosity. If we just follow everything our authorities tell us, we’ll soon be in our comfort zone and be manipulated by our superiors. That’s why so many people hate organized religion! There is no place for differing views. And without differing views, there is no place for change and growth. Rather, we remain stagnant in our comfort zones.
I’m not encouraging dissent against what the Bible teaches or what God tells us to do. Far from it. But I had hoped to see people start questioning how far short we’ve fallen in our faith and the Christianity we’ve always known as compared to the biblical faith portrayed in the Bible. The moment we see there’s this big gap and difference and the moment we start questioning and start being dissatisfied, then only will we be burdened to do something to change things. And when we have burdened and dissatisfied people, we actually have before us agents of change – for the better.
I know I sound like a radical – perhaps I am and during this period I realized how much of a radical I am in my beliefs and desire for change as I compare it with that of others from church. Yet I don’t think being radical is wrong. I think we Christians need to live as radicals. Jesus was a radical. Our whole faith is a radical faith – not the normal thing that’s accepted by the mainstream if truly lived out. Possessing faith and believing in what we do as Christians is a radical thing to do. If you’re not a radical, you’re one in conformity with the status quo – now that’s bad because Christianity was never meant to be like that! It has always been a radical faith!
Anyway, I attended this charismatic Presbyterian for about 2.5 years – from mid-1999 till the end of 2001. In the last few months of 2001, I remember talking about political issues – this was after the terrorist attacks of September 11. I did so as I knew that though there is great danger in Christianity and politics mixing, Christianity and the faith is inevitably political. What I mean is that Christians are a people who have been forgiven because of Jesus Christ. And the calling for us all is to live as a shining light in this world – proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ as well as reflecting the compassionate and loving heart of God. This call means we will need to get involved with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized – because God loves them and God says a lot about His people needing to help them. Politics involves power. Very often people are oppressed due to politics. And if so, the call of the Christian is to resist political oppression of people in the name of Christ and love. A faith that does not acknowledge the need to be in solidarity with the oppressed and poor and that does not do all it can to help such people is like salt which has lost its saltiness or a lamp which has its light covered.
I spoke those last few months a lot about how Christians have failed to help the Arabs and Palestinians especially. I was disappointed because post September 11, everyone was talking about how sad it was for Americans. Yes, it was so and the Americans deserve our sympathies to have faced such hideous terrorism. Yet there is so much suffering and oppression all over the world and we need to help all oppressed and suffering people. The Palestinians have been oppressed and suffered for decades under Israeli and American oppression, yet not many Christians care.
I left the Church at the end of 2001 as I was disappointed. I was beginning to take seriously issues of social justice. I was concerned for the poor and how so many people died due to starvation or other poverty-related causes, yet we in the First World – especially us Christians – live indifferently to their plight. I was interested in politics and how people suffered and were oppressed by politics. All this brought me face to face with lots of hard questions. While for the past 6 years or so I was very interested in theology and bringing together Charismatic and more conservative Christianity, now I realized that while all the questions I faced in the past were important, more important perhaps was how my faith ought to be related to the poor, suffering, oppressed and marginalized. To me, Christianity and Churches as I had got to know till then were more concerned about salvation, evangelism and the afterlife than what most people are facing here and now. Most Christians in my culture and country have the luxury to talk about all this only because they aren’t in the midst of great suffering and poverty. While not wanting at all to under-emphasize the importance of evangelism, salvation and the afterlife, I couldn’t accept how Christianity has not done much to help people on this earth. Furthermore, the bible had a lot to say about poverty, suffering, love-in-action that we Christians never concern ourselves with. It was becoming more and more unthinkable how Christians in the developed world concerned themselves with solely evangelism and other “spiritual” things, while people were dying out there. Many of them. Such a Christianity wasn’t right somehow, I felt.
I knew I couldn’t stay in the Church anymore because I was already being seen as too radical in being concerned with the real suffering of people in this world. I needed a break. I didn’t want to be part of a Christianity like that which relegated such issues of suffering and poverty as an unimportant and non-essential aspect of faith. To some Christians and friends, I was losing my faith because of my great concern for the poor and my great interest in politics. I was thus becoming too different and radical for most Churches and Christians. Also, it was the right time for me to leave as I was going to Sydney soon for my University studies. And so I more or less left attending that Church by the end of 2001.
3) My Polytechnic Studies
I took my last Polytechnic examination paper in May 1999 and started my National Service (NS) – compulsory army for male Singaporeans – on 1st September 1999 for 2.5 years. For three years from July 1996 till May 1999 I studied Business Studies (BS) in Ngee Ann Polytechnic. I found studies there much easier than my O levels and Secondary School studies. Average school hours were 4-5 per day [though I mostly skipped an average of 2 hours of lectures per day :)] Some subjects were interesting, though too general in nature and not in-depth enough to leave much of a lasting impression upon me. Like most education systems nowadays, a lot of memorization was expected. There wasn’t much creative thinking or in-depth understanding taught or expected.
Yet I would say that it was during these years that I really learnt a lot – on my own, that is. My Polytechnic education, to me, was just a distraction during those years. I didn’t learn much there and life there didn’t have an impact upon my life. It was during my free time that I learnt the most. I was greatly fortunate to be in such a relaxed course that I could afford lots of free time to pursue my own interests and learning and to reflect on life, my faith, the world – basically just to explore life and find out what I want to do in life!
Going for formal studies at a school or university is good if one already has a passion for that subject that he/she is going to study. However, if a person merely thinks it is what he likes and goes into studying a subject without first knowing much or having explored the subject, one will merely be forced to learn to get a paper certificate. There would be no passion. It would be mere drudgery!
A lot of my Secondary School friends are going into the university studying either Information Technology (IT) or Engineering. Why? Not because they have a passion for this subject, but merely because that’s where most guys go! I think that’s sad! Without passion, one won’t go far and one won’t gain true satisfaction from one’s studies, future job and life itself. One wouldn’t succeed in life. But then again, passionless people don’t care about succeeding in anything they do and that takes much excitement out of life!
My life in the Polytechnic (1996-1999) wasn’t so much of a drudgery even though I wasn’t really passionate about the subject I was taking. That was because I had a lot of free time. And during the free time, I explored and learnt. And my passion in life started forming during my years in Polytechnic.
I have to say that I was fortunate to have gone through a process of finding my passion in life. While a lot of Singaporeans would have gone through their hectic Junior College life (and for that matter be forced to study subjects that will have not much relevant in their future lives), I studied a course that wasn’t so demanding. Because of this, I was free to do my own stuff and develop my own interests.
4) National Slavery
Well, I won’t want to say much because I don’t wish to give too much attention and glory to the stupid 2.5 years I had to go through! :) All I will say is that because of my medical condition (Spherocytosis), I was assigned a clerical, rather than combat, vocation in the army. I basically did administrative and dispatch work from 8am to 5pm. My experience there opened my eyes to working life – the passionlessness of people around me, the gossipy nature of fallen humanness (yup, gossip is their “opium” of entertainment throughout the day), and a taste of internal politics and backstabbing. Life was meaningless for the people there. But I guess that’s the way it is for a lot of people without a purpose and meaning in life.