How Can We Live No Differently?

I met up with an old old friend and sister-in-Christ this evening, only to be asked some really hard questions. I did not need to play ignorant or pretend that my current lifestyle and mental/emotional health is not reflective of my spiritual state. She knew the void that I was struggling with and how I desperately wanted to fix my eyes on something more — something higher than what I could see.

I shared with her my fear that I would still be in the same position, working equally hard, but still as a teacher, years from now. And she asked directly, Why do you need to know how you will advance? That question caught me unexpectedly, and I had no sure answer. Why did it matter so much that I know where I would be headed three years from now? Why did it matter that I ensured I advanced in my career, either on a teaching or leadership track? Things are different for us as Christians, she posited.

She also asked, What is your weakness? For her she confessed it boiled down to two things: Pride, in wanting to be in control, and the Desire for approval from others. I had not thought about it prior to hearing this question in my face. Why was I trying to do so much, what was keeping me from leaning on God?

I think it is a sense of self-pride, of wanting to be in control. I want to know where I am headed, and what I am capable of, and what is in store in the future. I also think it is slothfulness. Rather than spending my time efficiently, I give myself excuses far too easily to watch a movie, enjoy a good meal, or catch up on sleep. I think diligence should not come only in the form of long working hours, but time spent in a focus and driven manner as well.

Having established that, I realised that the way we make life decisions should differ from the way others do, as sound and solid their advice might be. Just like how we check ourselves when we wait for a partner for life, waiting in faith for God’s timeline to unfold in our lives, we should also have patience and godliness as we listen and humbly submit to His Will – even if I have no idea where my current life decisions will take me.

It is truly a time to kick myself awake and start making changes to my life. So how can we live no different from others, when we have the ultimate promise in an eternal living God? How can I struggle with the same jadedness and cynicism towards life and work, how can I claim to be a child of God, when I fight the same inner-demons to do my work with conviction and joy?

It is a troubling and embarrassing testimony of the power to freedom we have in Christ. I need to live a victorious life, and take on my challenges with wisdom and patience and humility. Colleagues may be difficult and challenges may be tough. But if God opens a way and I prayerfully submit to His will, I can only be certain that His good and perfect plan will unfold.

Time for change, hoshao. Time for change and plenty of prayer.

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Balance

This is my very feeble and subjective attempt to explain my current relationship status. It is by no means accurate or meant to be objective. Rather, it is a way to consolidate my thoughts on what  the terms ‘dating’ and being ‘in a relationship’ has come to mean for me over the years as I was growing up.

I must have grown up indignant about the need for companionship from the opposite gender. My education in an all-girls’ mission school for ten whole years has certainly etched that feminine identity and independence in my fellow schoolmates and I. My parents’ rocky marriage and subsequent divorce throughout my Primary School years must have also played a part to warn me that first of all, marriage and relationships may not last; and second of all, you did not need a man to be complete. (You did not look far beyond my mother to be persuaded – she is the epitome of independence and success, having raised four children on her own during the most turbulent times of her life.)

It was in Secondary School when my family began to go to church regularly and the church became an essential part of my teenage years. Although I started to develop feelings (more like an interest) in friends of the opposite gender during this time, I never acted on it. During this time, I met girls who got squealish and excited being around boys at some of the combined church camps and events. At one camp, girls skimpily clad in bikinis were at the beach playing beach volleyball and water polo with the boys. Needless to say, I was hugely affected by the culture I observed and wrote an article about it, expressing my discomfort at the inappropriate outfit and behavioral choices of teenagers, as well as implying my conviction to remain blameless and pure.

I read my first teenage girls’ magazine Brio shipped monthly from Colorado Springs. It taught me how to be discerning about many things related to my faith. It also introduced me to Joshua Harris, and his huge release, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, a romantically unromantic story about how he and his wife met and kept their love pure before God. What I took from this book was a deep (and probably very misguided) conviction that the concept of ‘dating’ is secular and unbiblical. In fact, ever since, I frowned upon spending one-to-one time with guys I did not know would be my future husband.

It gifted me with a very unrealistic and idealised version of love. On top of that, my mother cautioned me against seeing any boys until I quote, ‘grew up and started work’. She may not have meant it verbatim, but it was a guideline a shy girl would live by. In any case, junior college came and went by too quickly – I had no time to mingle socialise and fall in love. Growing up in a conservative family did not exactly give me reason to challenge these beliefs and guidelines either. I did not know how to look good, use cosmetics, buy pretty dresses or do my hair, and my mother did not exactly have the time to teach me. Everything I knew I learnt via trial-and-error and from my friends. Oftimes I looked like a fool.

In university, my ideal romantic story continued to accompany me. Each time I went out with a guy for lunch or dinner – alone, I would start questioning myself: ‘Did I like him more than a friend?’, ‘What was my purpose?’, ‘What was his purpose?’ and it hardly ended. I over-complicated and over-analysed every friendship I had with a guy, unless (1) he was already attached, or (2) he was not a Christian. I did not envy my social circle (given my very cautious way of managing my friendships), but I did not know how to balance it either.

And sadly, now that I have graduated and started working for nearly four years, there is barely any time to mingle, widen my social circle, meet new friends or invest in friends who could be potential boyfriends. I have fed myself with my own career and self-love that I find it hard to break down the idealised Joshua Harris-love I carried with me for so long.

It is only lately that I admit how imbalanced, and possibly hurtful, this view of love is. We do not lightly invest our heart and mind into relationships, but neither do we hold back from getting to know someone just because we are not sure where it may lead to. The truth is that we will never know who that person may be, and by writing off every single person you might like, just because there is no certainty involved, you are in actuality writing off your future.

It is after all, like our plans isn’t it? We never know the full picture or the final destination, only God does. But that doesn’t stop us from taking the plunge to try something radically different, or giving new ideas a shot to see where it may lead us. I hope 2015 becomes that kind of year. One of self-fulfillment, passion and love.

Hello Twenty Fifteen!

Last evening before the new year countdown, about a hundred and twenty family and friends from our church gathered to share our thanksgivings for 2014. It is my promise that I count my blessings for 2014 in words, even if I do not share it.

I am closing in on the end of four years of my first career. A lot of people say that you tend to face an ‘existential drought’ at the end of the first four years of your career, resulting in many switching careers. I reckon that it may not be true, but at the same time, 2014 was a year of questions, answered mainly with frustrations and disappointments. It did lead to a lot of personal reflection, taking the time to slow down and rethink my raison d’etre.

In 2014, I lost the friendship of someone very dear to me. But through it, I learnt that everything is volatile, and as cliche it sounds, change is the only constant in life. I learnt that I need to cherish every person in my life, and not take their friendships for granted.

In 2014, I also learnt that God is sovereign. He has always been and always will be. He works in the hearts and minds of not just our peers but our students, and although it may not be clear, it is clear to me that He was there when W, N X and H struggled to come to school and fight their own shadows. It gives me much peace and comfort to know that He is Lord and I can pray and commit all my little students’ futures to Him. There is always a way out, a way that the Lord has prepared for each child.

I learnt that words can be cheap, but they can also cut deep. But my run-ins with some people only made me more certain of my purpose and abilities. Despite all the challenges, God sustained me through the love of close friends and family. Every little success and failure that happened in 2014 is a result of His mercy and grace. Praise the Lord!

I am thankful for the privilege to watch my little kids grow from when they were twelve to when they graduate at sixteen, making decisions concerning their future, preparing to chase their dreams.

I know that no matter what challenge 2015 flings at me, God is able to catch me and His sovereignty and love will empower me to tide through all of that! There are a lot of new changes to welcome and embrace this year, not to mention that 2015 is Singapore’s 50th year! I pray that I walk more closely with the Lord, and listen to His leading.

Hard Lesson #1: Make Time

‘Make time.’

This is a principle I am not unfamiliar with since the start of my working career. All of us have twenty four solid hours in a day, nothing more, nothing less, but we choose to spend them in different ways. Time, in its measurable quantitative value, cannot be made. But Time, in its qualitative form, operates in a strange and elusive paradigm. It can be stretched and compressed, it can pass slowly or quickly, it can be worth immeasurably, or nothing at all.

From the beginning, we were urged to learn how to ‘Make time.’ It served as an effective instruction to manage our various responsibilities and commitments. Of course, it is one of most difficult lessons to master, for me at least. Inadvertently, my time is spent squandered on indulging in the convenience of my introversion and my slothful private habits. Needless to say, my spiritual life, church life, even social life, suffer the most. For my selfishness rules with great tyrannical conviction over the twenty four hours I have been blessed with, allotting minute pockets of time to what may matter most in reality, and giving lavishly to matters of personal indulgence instead. What a shame.

My few achievements and successes in my career cheers my spirit some at the end of each year, although increasingly the value of the reward is little compared to the opportunity costs of it. Each time at the end of a grand year, I experience a rather short-lived reflective period and begin to count my blessings, and remember that it is the Lord God who builds up, and it is the Lord God who sustains the work of my hands. Only in a spiritual drought nearing the end of the year, do I remember that God’s grace is sufficient, His blessings like showers that pour out upon us. Then, I give God the glory.

At a home blessing service this evening, a Bible passage struck me, harking down to the very same principle of ‘Making Time’ as from the beginning.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early
    and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
    for he grants sleep to those he loves.

Psalm 127:1-2

Unless the Lord God wills the house to be built, nothing will be accomplished. Tonight I remember the smallness of our being, and the greatness of our Lord’s might and compassion in contrast. Each time I see a child succeed, I have to give thanks and praise God – not just by my mouth, but with my heart and soul as well.

The curious thing is what follows in verse 2. When we forget who is in control, we tend to be worrywarts. I know I have a strong tendency to want to be in control. It is only then when I feel empowered, assured, and at ease, believing that I pull (most of) the strings of this puppet show. But how silly it is to think that we have access and control over all the puppet strings for the show! How silly it is to worry about those strings, when the Lord God has already promised that His will be done!

I try to, do things, even when I might guess that it is possibly in vain. When the busy season comes, my life extends late into the night, frequently tempering at deadlines, and believing that I am ‘busy‘ ‘toiling‘ away, robbed of the ability to be joyful and thankful and to have rest and sustenance when work gets tough. In verse 2, the Bible states – and right in my face – that ‘the Lord grants sleep to those He loves’. Whether this means a full 8-hour sleep package at night, or restfulness during a brief night’s nap, what it means for sure, is sustenance for the journey.

So with this promise, what God wants is probably the simplest thing from us: to ‘Make time.’ To make time for Him.

This hard lesson #1 is for Twenty Fifteen.

Christmas Blessings

This year, our caroling team comprises brothers and sisters outside of our church choir. Instead of caroling at home gatherings hosted by church members, we took a leap of faith and ventured beyond the four walls of the church and will be taking our Christmas carols to two homes in our community – Dover Park Hospice and Econ Old Age Home.

I am filled with trepidation at the possibility of screwing up our visit. We represent our church and more significantly and truly, we want to represent Christ and bring good tidings of joy, hope and peace to more people. Yet we are unprofessional singers, most of us without any musical knowledge or background. This is why I feel so blessed and grateful for the opportunity to bring our carols to a wider community today. Our voices are far from perfect, but I pray that God’s angels sing with us and fill us with overflowing joy and peace, that our entire being will be full of praise for God and we bring undeniably good tidings to the residents.

Peace and Joy

sailing

Thursday, the 18th of December, was a significant day for many of us. I was worried for many things, with all sorts of thoughts floating in and out of my head. The following scenarios kept playing out in my head: What if the cohort did the worse out of the previous cohorts and was terribly unimpressive? What if the students did unexpectedly terribly? What if we did not do our students justice? 

I was not freaking out – I was still enjoying my little K reality drama show the night before and having a very restful sleep. But those thoughts did nibble at my mind every now and then. After a while, I realised that my biggest concern wasn’t the results analysis or what the school would think of the quality of our teaching, but the kids. This would mean so much to them, not just English per se, but all the other subjects together. This would mark the end of their journey of their Secondary education with us, and the start of a new one somewhere else. And what else could that be full of but hope and anticipation? I wish and prayed that they would see it as just that, no matter what the outcome of their N levels are. I prayed that they might have the wisdom and insight to recognise that every one of them would have a different path to travel, one that would suit them, one that would inspire them.

It gave me peace to know that the Sovereign Lord is in control of every single one of their lives, what we have no control over.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
John 14:27

It also struck me that I have so much to be thankful for. Just when I felt extremely drained after close to four years of teaching them, it took the 18th of December to remind me why I enjoyed teaching in the first place. God is so good – this is the first cohort of students I have taught since 2011 as a beginning teacher, and it is such a privilege to be able to teach them English since four years ago – my very first cohort of students I have seen through to graduation. Of course, there are many things I have done (or not done) which I am not terribly proud of. There is always something more that could be done, and I could never compare to Jean or other inspiring teacher figures who have really chosen to give up almost everything else for their students. But I try, and I know that this is one class that I probably have the most personal relationship with.

I remember going through the feelings of anger, diasppointment, frustration with them; they have driven me up to boiling point, to my wits’ end. But by the beginning of this year, I think we have come to an acceptance of each other: my temper and whinyness on some days, their laziness on (most) other days, but our tolerance and acceptance towards all those things. It isn’t the most professional thing to do, but this is one class I felt I could rant and share about certain things with them, without worrying that they might hate or misunderstand me, perhaps because they have seen the ugliest and best sides of me, and I them.

Coming one full circle with this class of students is truly an amazing experience. I can truly say that I have grown to love and care for every one of them, even the most trying students. And I thank God for this wholesome experience.

So how did we do? By God’s divine grace, our school achieved 100% passes and an improvement in both the percentage passes and percentage distinctions from previous years. The breakdown of results analysis was not all that fantastic – I had expected some students to do better by 1 or 2 grades. This was where I felt we fell short, and we could have done more for these students. I realised that God gave us again, just enough, to make us realise that it is He who holds everything in His hands. If he had given us too much, I may have jumped through the roof and forgot that it is God who has always brought us through. So thank you, Lord, for your wisdom and grace is upholding me and my students all these years.

Demons In My Heart

This afternoon was another hard battle with the nasty thoughts and feelings of angst and pain from a lost friendship. I feel that her hatred or stubbornness towards me was not only costing the department efficiency, it was also compromising on the quality of students’ learning and my professional outlook. Today I found out that she had shared information on reading programmes with other teachers in the department, but had conveniently left me out. I had a good mind to confront her about everything that has happened, but as I picked up my phone to craft a message, my fears of rejection and anger towards her got the better of me. Once again, that urge to deal with this conflict face to face subsided and is temporarily cast aside. I have to admit, when things happen that remind me of the nasty aftertaste our friendship has withered into, I need to get into my car, drive off and let it all out – sometimes as if I am talking to her, other times as if I am talking to someone else.

I think I have learnt that friendship is hardly ever a constant, and sometimes, relationships can turn sour, even the most unexpected ones. These demons have been plaguing my mind and my heart for weeks, and I really do not know to expel them from within me, if that is even possible. I realised what disgusts me at this point is not the bitterness that we have harboured between us, but the uncertainty of what is to come. I need to know if she expects or foresees a reconciliation. If that is not on the menu, I will then learn to adapt and work around it. What is driving me nuts right now, is not knowing how she is feeling, or what she is thinking. Today she walked past my cubicle, and in her eyes I saw an impenetrable glassiness, maybe even a sense of iciness that she had set up, perhaps to guard herself from wearing her emotions on her sleeves. All my remaining resolve to re-establish contact and speak to her personally melted away in desperation and pain.

This is not the only thing that is creating an unfathomable and unpleasant stir in my heart. As our managers iron out the intricate details of our roles and responsibilities in 2015, I realised a slipping in and out of contentment and discontentment. A good friend of mine  attributed it to seeing how everyone else seemed to be “more in control” than I was. They were assigned the classes they had hoped for and the coordinatorship roles they had requested for. On the other hand, my dreams were crushed when I found out about some of my assigned duties, and that not everything had developed according to what I had in mind for myself.

I was upset – more than I probably needed to be – that my colleague requested for a duty I was given. My role has a coordinator was that simply taken away. There were practical reasons for my colleague to have made that request, but I took offense that she had done so at a meeting in front of all of us, leaving little room for private negotiation or discussion. I took offense that she had earlier asked that I put in a request that she be given the role instead. I took offense that she was inexperienced and yet demanded so much – I questioned how ready she was and whether or not she truly knew what was at stake. I was upset that when our shared concern to refine the Lower Secondary syllabus and assessment gave way to a stronger more balanced curriculum, she seemed to forget that we had pushed for it together. I know for sure that she has reasons to be proud of herself for she had accomplished much. But for what she asked for and was given, I felt she had taken away.

I don’t think I have ever experienced jealousy in the workplace quite so pungently before. Perhaps there never was direct competition.

But I need to pause and reflect again. When writing the previous entry, “Learning to Let Go” – you would see a blank entry right now, which is testament to God teaching me to let go (similar to the title), even when a wonky connection meant that I lost an entire personal entry – I had promised myself never to forget the goodness and grace of God in my life. I had promised myself to learn to let go and let God because there simply isn’t any other way to go toward joy and peace and a victorious life.

Since putting that entry together, James 1:17 keeps coming to mind:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

I had prayed and committed my career and my life into God’s hands. I had trusted Him that whatever role and responsibility I was assigned next year, God would teach me to humbly receive and then to humbly give back. No matter how trying that seemed to be, I could trust that God would give me the courage and strength to accept in joy, the good and perfect gift from above.

This soup of unhappiness and discontent and angst that have been stirring in my heart is a concoction of disgruntle and bitterness. I had expected myself to be playing particular roles, to take on particular responsibilities, to be stretched and groomed in particular ways, and when the opposite of that happened, I became upset and found it hard to swallow. Especially when everyone else around me seemed to be happy with their lot. It is easy to be jealous of another’s lot, I realised.

But when I reconfigure my mind and look at my assigned duties and teaching classes as a privilege, a calling, a chance to learn how to serve… and last but not least, as a gift from God – I don’t think anyone can complain.

My soiled friendships may have cost me some opportunities, but I know that when resources are inadequate, God’s strength is made perfect and His resources are abundant. If there are other challenges that may pose problems along the way, I need to be prayerful and proactive in seeking out a new way.

My goal for next year, is to be 1) More proactive – in voicing out problems, suggestions, and making possible things happen. As well as, 2) Be nice. Say what builds up, not what tears down.

I need to trust that even if the workplace politics are cut-throat selfish and competitive, in His own time and way, God will make me.

Like a Walk in the Desert

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He walked on, footstep after footstep, sinking his feet into the warm desert sand with every step he took. The space was vast, the ends boundless. He turned 90 degrees to his right, and the view that greeted him was completely the same as what he had turned from. He tried again to the left, only to be engulfed in a sense of utter friendlessness and confusion. The longing to escape from this pit of aridity and sameness grew stronger with every gust of wind that swept past his ears. The fear of never leaving that desert and never seeing a colour other than that rust-stained sandscape again made him scream out in wild hysteria.

My mind too has been a wandering in the desert, and has lost its bearings. It has been near impossible to put into words my thoughts and feelings, and the closest that I have come to doing so, is to speak of it metaphorically.

In the past few days I revisited some of my earlier entries recounting my experiences in school. Many of them reflective, filled with a sense of childlike wonderment at the infinite possibilities of teaching in a classroom, and a heart of immense gratitude when given opportunities to shine. I cringe when I read those entries – partly because it makes me feel stupid for being naive then, but partly also because I see in my present self the opposite of that earnest young fellow who wrote those entries three years ago.

There is something more I need to fix, and this is something I have been lying to myself about in order to play down the necessity of it. There is, simply put, no way a person can expect to find his way out of the vast changing landscapes of the desert, without God as his guide. And I guess the only thing one really needs is to be in tune with God.

Take My Life

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I sat across from my two teacher friends at Bakers & Cook last week hearing them take turns to tell their moving and empowering tales on Teachers’ Day. As one friend recounted her experience, the other friend wiped tears off her cheeks, gushing at the sentimentality of the moment. As they recounted their versions of Teachers’ Day 2014, my mind was working to find a way to divert their attention onto something else. I had no inspirational Teacher’s Day story or memorable gift from a student that reaffirmed my calling, and I did not want to be in the position to have to answer another, “So, how was your Teachers’ Day?” question. My Teachers’ Day was spent ordinarily. My form class gave me an obligatory Teachers’ Day notebook, most of the messages reading “Happy Teachers’ Day!”. I walked into class and distributed their results slips, and they behaved the exact same way they usually do.

I know we are not in this job for the recognition, praise or thanks, but truth be told, sometimes that is what we need to keep us going. And this year, I felt trashy and tired and tired of having to keep up with the smiles and grins. I feel under-appreciated by the school, and by the students. I need to find my bearings again. I need to refuel my soul and remember why I am in this profession. I have spent this entire week savouring the times spent alone and with friends, and wondering if it is time to move on. But half the time I spend beating myself up over why such a question even exists to plague me. If I believed with all my heart that teaching is a calling, then why do I struggle so hard to find out if it is time to change courses and move on? It is either I commit what I do every day into the Lord’s hands, no matter the amount of acknowledgement or praise because I want to labour for the Lord; or I have taken it upon myself to decide what career and future I want.

My principal wrote and shared a personal poem with us on Teachers’ Day. It may have been the most meaningful point that day for me:

Dear God, who am I to be so blessed
with this motley crew who call me ‘captain’
That You in Your infinite wisdom
gifted me when my posting did happen?
In my third year now, I give you thanks
for this precious gift, wondrously fine,
of colleagues, with loving hearts of gold,
Team _, one I’m proud to call mine.

Teachers, on this, most sacred of days,
may the ideals which influenced your choice
of this noble profession remain
and give cause to make your hearts rejoice
May today be a gentle reminder
that while rocky days may un-inspire,
you are much loved and held dear, for truly
you have the power to set hearts afire!

I pray you’ll enjoy, until you retire
many more years to lead, care and inspire! 

My career this year (and hilariously by extension, my life) seems to have paled in comparison to previous years. I wish I relied on God in the pursuit of my career achievements and choices. I wish I had prayed before I took on roles and responsibilities, before I decided to binge and mark, before I decided to run my life in a way that I approved of. I had allowed my emotions to cloud my judgment in my job and at many points, probably was not in the best shape to give my students my all. I feel ashamed when I see the extent to which my friends have given up my holiday and time and sleep to work with their students to build them up.

I do have plans for change, but God needs to to come before those plans first. It never is easy to put your thoughts in words, especially when it is this close to midnight. My prayer is just that I continue to seek out God’s will and figure out all these infinite possibilities with His direction.