For those weary of work….

For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?
All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.

A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

Ecclesiastes 2:21-25

Darren’s Story

darren xanne and ian.jpg

Xanne, her new hubbie Darren and me.

Darren said it quite matter-of-factly a few years ago: “Ian, let’s face it. Stroke victims and nice girls don’t make an equation.”

At that moment, I wondered if there was anything more miserable than this statement.

Since 2000 when a major brain haemorrhage struck, busting a blood vessel in his brain, Darren’s future had severely skewed off the path we were all meant to take.

Of course, one’s path is never planned. While a few of us like Junlong and Karen did become doctors as we were preparing to, many of us didn’t take the medical route.

But Darren was and still is the brightest of us all.

Back in school, you measure brightness by who you copied your homework from, and who always scored the most consistent high marks. We shared plenty of laughs in school, and he would often shake his hairy legs (exposed through our blue slacks) when he was bored with our class teachers’ lectures.

It wasn’t so funny when Darren was shaking his leg from the hospital bed, mainly because I didn’t know if that person there had a future anymore.

I’ve been wanting to tell this story for a long time, but never did so because it looked as if all was lost and Darren wasn’t keen the one time I asked him a few years back.

Okay, that was for the newspaper, but these days, a blog is pretty public too.

But with his big day last night, there is no better way for me to celebrate his happiness than to pen his tribulations down. He said ok this time, but asked “PLEASE do not make it a tear-jerker.”

I’m not sure if that’s possible, given what he’s been through.

You see, one cannot know the meaning of happiness unless one has suffered.

And you know, we often wonder why God makes us suffer in such terrible ways.

We question what is the meaning of love when love hurts us so much. We question the meaning of our existence when there seems no meaning to begin with.

His stroke came the very weekend after he had finished his final medical exams and before he was to begin his housemanship.

It started with a massive headache on a Sat night and he was trying to reach his girlfriend Christine on her phone. If she had reached his house any later, he would have surely died.

I don’t really remember who called me that night. All I know was that I was called “because Darren always spoke about you in class, Ian”.

Because of army and school, I had hardly seen Darren for the past four years and we had drifted apart as buddies often do.

What had he gotten himself into this time? I thought. The last time I saw him was at some pub, and he was as scruffy as he could be.

When I went to the hospital, it was a sight no friend or parent had to endure.

Darren had a large portion of his skull bone cut open, and there were many fat and ugly tubes twisting their way out of his brain. He’s always been a skinny chap, but was I looking at a skeletal corpse? It was a little like Robocop, and I really wished it was a movie or dream instead.

“My friend is dead.” I thought to myself. Why him, I asked God.

This was a time when I often talked to God, the mark of a freshly minted Christian. Why would my God take a healthy and very intelligent young man, and bring him down to such a state?

My mother was going through the painful last months of her life as well, and there seemed no end to the expositions of misery going on around me.

(Times like these, you tend to wallow in the happy images of your youth in order to intensify one’s grief. One tends to remember only the sugar-coated happiness of the ACJC days when studies seemed so insignificant to the fun we were having.)

Christine, his girlfriend of seven years then, couldn’t stop crying. “Ian, I’ve always talked to Darren every day since we got together in JC. I don’t know what to do because he’s not talking to me. He’s not talking to me.”

As I drove her back home, I told her to take heart because God “would not let us suffer more than we can bear”.

Those were the darkest days of Darren’s life, as he lay on that ICU bed. His father said to me one day in the ward, “You see Darren on the bed? There’s nothing wrong with him right? There’s nothing wrong with him!” I nodded, but of course, I thought otherwise.

Darren did not wake up from his coma for many weeks.

In between that time, I would come and visit, and to my sadness, he would have one leg hanging outside the bedframe and he would swing it incessantly as he always did in class. I wondered if that meant that Darren was still alive or his subconscious was simply repeating some bad habits.

I took leave from Darren for a month as I went on a pre-planned USA road trip with some of the 4A1 guys. When I came back, I was overjoyed to see him conscious again and Christine was smiling too.

But he had lost the ability to read.

Sure, he could speak English but his ability to recognise and write words had been wiped out. His peripheral vision had disappeared as well, so he had to turn to face something directly, and could not see out of the corner of his eye.

He also suffered partial paralysis on the right side of his body. You know, for a person training to be a doctor or surgeon, this is the ultimate nightmare.

The road to recovery was long and difficult for him. No matter how many sentences I write, it will not reveal the agony or the misery he went through.

And one day, Christine went her own way too.

Today she is married to another man, and though I know she reads this blog, I haven’t had a chance to talk to her since 2003.

In time, I started to drift away from Darren again. How could I not, having to juggle journalism and a newborn? I always told myself I would visit him or risk becoming detached again. But you know how friends often tell themselves to do this or that and never get around in the end.

Yet every time I saw my old friend, he seemed to be making big leaps in progress. No longer does he need to rely on a walking cane. No longer does he pause and stutter as he searches for the right words to use. His brain rebuilt the lost portions, and he slowly relearnt the alphabet.

And heck, he was telling those naughty jokes again.

Darren’s dad was right after all. There was nothing wrong with him.

Today, Darren’s finished his Masters and is going for his PhD in research. He’s got a new wife who loves him, and he’s got Jesus in his life. All the 4A1 guys have moved on in their lives, yet nobody has travelled further than our Darren.

During his dinner speech last night, he didn’t mention anything about the day that changed his life. It wasn’t really necessary, since most of us were familiar with the story.

What really moved me was when he said: “I know I am not the perfect son…in many senses of the word. However, I would like to tell you that I have the perfect parents. Even when I did the wrong things, they were always there for me.”

What makes a man whole?

Is it his ability to do all things with the skills that he was born with? Is it having a brain that overcomes all trauma and wills the future into existence? Is it having friends or companions who can stick with you through thick and thin?

As his story shows, such things are fleeting and can be taken from us at any moment.

Six years ago, some of us wanted to give up hope on Darren, and he may have thought the same himself.

But God didn’t.

My brothers, God is what makes a man whole.

Papa Don’t Preach

I have trouble keeping awake in church, or for that matter, anything that requires me to sit still for more than 15 minutes.

But really, some preachers need to record their own sermons, play it back and see if they fall asleep too.

Today we listened to one really boring sermon, which was obviously a scholarly essay being dictated to the crowd. It was all very correct, gramatically and biblically, but the execution was dismal.

I was shifting between this plane of awareness and the next, trying not to drop Isabel whenever I nodded off, and feeling perplexed at the sermon when I was awake.

For eg. the good pastor declared, “Sin needs to be particularised”. What on earth does that mean? Did I hear wrongly? Add to that a droning voice that never once addressed the congregation personally, or change emotions with different passages. It’s a sermon, not a monologue, bro.

This example illustrates several issues with Christianity throughout the ages.

Firstly, can Christians think? Respect for the man of the cloth often implies that you do not question his Sunday words of wisdom. Being cynical of everything said on the pulpit is damaging to your faith as well. However, there is a need to listen carefully and digest sermons for what they say and what they really mean. God gave us intellect to see and challenge any off ideas, and sometimes these do creep into sermons. Even worse when the church speaker spends all his time on specific doctrine and not building up the faith for the new secular age.

For eg. for the longest time, the head pastor at this church kept attacking on Westcott and Hort (who did the source translation for the NIV Bible) and how all other Bible versions save the King James’ Version were wrong. This is a doctrinal pillar of the current the Bible-Presbyterian movement and the congregation accepts it readily without much debate or dissent. But for people like me, who grew up in a Methodist school and was baptised in a Baptist church, it smacks of doctrinal dogmatism.

Especially when the pastor writes an anti-Westcott/Hort song and expects his flock to sing some really awful lyrics.

Does it mean because I bring an NIV Bible to a BP church (which I do) I am not saved? Jesus saves, not the translation of the text. I am no Bible scholar, and do not claim to know which version is more accurate, but both Bibles tell me the same thing – God is great, Jesus saves! I read the NIV because I do not say “thou”, “thee” or “verily” in dailyspeak and modern grammar is much easier to digest.

How about sermons on dealing with godlessness in the workplace, the question of daily temptation, the problem of money in asset-rich but financially-unsound Singapore homes, or the very basis of a happy life? These were problems Jesus dealt with in his day, and continue to be big problems now. Let’s face it, the congregation is always struggling with these issues.

Most people don’t make the effort to come to Sunday church because they want to attend a seminary talk, but because they want fellowship and sermons they can connect to. Some conservative churches I’ve attended then blames falling attendance on the rise of the mega-churches, the Charismatics, or even churches using noisy drums during worship. I don’t connect to the happy singing of modern churches, and I think the problem for conservatives is that the modern believer is less inhibited to move church when he sees fit.

Secondly, should people not gifted with public speaking take to the pulpit regularly? There is nothing wrong with this, because there are always Christians with something enlightening to say. At Leng Kwang Baptist (my own church, the abovementioned is the nearby church we attend because mornings are too chaotic to leave the house by 8am), members often share their thoughts, feelings and prayers voluntarily and the church body is better off as a result.

But at other churches, only a few are allowed to take the stage and some of them are really better off writing their essays. Because when the congregation starts to switch off when a particular person keeps speaking, their minds inadvertantly turn to more worldly matters. Dear brethren, nobody likes to leave church thinking “what is it that was preached?” or forgetting the sermon completely.