Monday 12 December 2016

Mortality to Eternity

After almost an entire year of not writing, I'm here at the suggestion of one of my beloved CGLs hahaha. Unlike my older posts, I guess this one is more like a reflection over life this year in 2016. Still, it's going to be sort of topical, borrowing from 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
"Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."
I wasn't hanging on to this verse throughout my difficult seasons this year. But re-looking at it on the other side of the fence, I seem to appreciate better Paul was writing here. (Perhaps, more accurate to say that I'm still on the same side of fence, but nearer to the it, and being able to see past it through a hole in it). I would not be referencing to it directly, but I'd say that whatever I wrote further down is my own elaboration of that verse's reality in my life. 


For most of us, mortality is a rather difficult concept to grasp. Yes we do get hurt, injured, fall sick, have accidents. But unless you experienced intimately the death of another human, especially loved ones, mortality still seems rather far. Here by mortality, I'm not referring to just death, but also the fragility of human lives and our flesh. Aside from death, another way to see mortality is to see the decaying of our own flesh. (which naturally includes death). To elaborate, aged people, especially the elderly, often become more and more aware of their mortality, as they face not just more of the death of others and are more involved in the aftermath of these people's departure, but also have to come to terms with their own failing health. Weakening limbs, losing of hair. Lost of mobility, even sanity. Cancer, heart issues, digestion problems. These aren't merely inconveniences; they dramatically change lives and lifestyles. 

I used to have a grandfather who was still cycling around the neighborhood at the age of 92. He had no major health problems aside from some hearing issues. However, all it took was a fall he had at home, and his lifestyle had to be modified significantly. He couldn't cycle anymore, nor move about much. Neither did last past 95 - the health problems came one after another with that one fall. Another uncle got hit by cancer, and though he could do his best to slow down the progression of his condition, he couldn't. His depression claimed his mind, and eventually his life through the cancer which he just couldn't come to terms with. 

At our 20s we start to realize that we lost some of our youthful energy due to lower metabolism, different sort of life responsibilities that inevitably changed our lifestyle, together with additional health issues (feeling tired, wrinkling, old injuries acting up, falling sick more often). However, the extent of the comprehension of mortality cannot be compared to those who are several decades older. I, for one, had the experience of rather significant health problems more similar to the elderly at my age.

Earlier on this year in February, I started to have rather bad back and hip pains for unknown reasons. A visit to the TCM, when it got really unbearable, shows that my spine and pelvic area is misaligned (like the bones shifted out of place) which resulted in a pinched nerve, and that was why it ached and hurt crazily. It was so bad that it would cost me headaches, and I couldn't sit up. I would go and see the TCM weekly to get the bones shifted back in, but I guess after being injured due to the shift (which I have no idea how it happened), the muscles were damaged and so couldn't hold the bones in the right place. So very often, it would get misalligned again. It was really really really frustrating. Imagine having a permanent stomachache that never goes away no matter what you do. And worse of all is that the bones get out of place randomly: when I lay down, when walking, when standing, when sitting. I never knew what's going to happen the moment I moved.

It didn't just remain that way. Somehow, the issue spread to my shoulders and also my chest. Random (small) movements would causes pops, and there were times when I felt short of breathe because after some pops I would feel something pressing against my chest. It's rather frightening and traumatic to recall, so I think I'll stop the description here, but suffice to say it didn't stop there. At the start of June, I went off to Mongolia for a missions trip of sorts. And I could only say that by God's miracle, after the 2 weeks I spent there, I came back miraculously recovered. No more aches or pains and I felt like I was given a new body. Having resolved that and also another thorny issue in my life, I started to look to the future again. Started gymming and picking up the guitar again i.e. becoming "normal" again I guess. Life was alright for about almost a month, when I accidentally hurt my wrist at the gym. I gave it a rest and about 2 - 3 weeks later, it was a lot better. However, around mid July, the pains I described above came back again. Even as I write this, I'm still suffering from them, although a little less. 

Here I want to describe my thoughts as I went through the whole ordeal. When I first had the issue, on my mind was the question: "When will I get back to normal?" That question consumed me, and everything which I felt set back the timing for me to recover, I avoided as I could. But I couldn't avoid them all. There were some that came especially, all the more, and because I wanted to pursue God and serve Him. And those incidents thoroughly crushed my spirit and brought anxiety. After months came and went, and not knowing what is to come, that hope and anxiety for a speedy recovery became despair and bitterness. I no longer asked the question: "When?" but "Why?" Why me, God? Why such an earnest servant? The same question Christians of all generations ask. But for me, it was asked despite me knowing all the answers and the character and purposes of God in allowing us to go suffering. Those answers were real for me. But those answers were found in the midst of emotional, spiritual pains. Not physical ones. I needed new answers, a new touch, for a new source of suffering and pain, even as I'm battling the sufferings brought by the old sources. When the pains came back in July, and followed me throughout the second semester of this year, each time I remember that it took only 2 weeks to recover in Mongolia,  I could not stomach my current plight. Would God work His miracle again? Why wouldn't He? Was my sufferings in the earlier season insufficient for Him? How much more must I go through? The despair that I had in the earlier half of the year, that disappeared when I recovered in June, came back amplified in August. The question changed from "why?", to a plea for mercy. A begging that I never had before in my life. That desperation that got the centurion to approach Jesus; that desperation of the bleeding women; of Zaccheus; of the lepers; of the paralyzed man lowered down from the roof; I knew personally. I did not dare demand of God to heal me, for He is God and I was made of dust. I eventually resigned myself to life like that - and I would not lie that life like that was not a life I desired to continue living; the alternative seemed so much sweeter.


Treatments came and went. Attempts were made by me to feel better and not aggravate my situation. Lifestyles changed. I tried to walk more and sit/drive less, because those often made me feel the aches. I moved a lot slower, I didn't dare to run. Even taking buses and MRTs made me nervous because of all the jerks (like when the bus drive didn't break slowly). I could only sleep on particular beds, sit on specific chairs. I had to find ways to ignore pains and not be overly anxious or scared about the pops that happen when they did (even if they hurt real badly after). I had to learn to control my emotions and remind me that I'm still a Christian - and God is on His throne. I must remind myself that God could heal me once He fulfill the purpose of this season; I needed only to be patient. I had to find escape methods from all the anxiousness and pains and doubts in my mind. I had to depend on health professionals for relief.

The restrictions I felt was honestly driving me crazy. I remember a few weeks ago while studying for exams, I couldn't sit for long, though I had to to complete my notes. I couldn't stand for long, because my legs would ache (and then pull on my bone) together with my back and neck (if I held my notes up to read). I couldn't exercise (because of all the ache and pains) to feel better. I didn't dare to sleep either (when I toss and turn, the bones can move out of place too). I didn't enjoy waking up because once I stretch instinctively when I wake up, the bones might move too. I felt limited by the environment at home too e.g. the table too low or the chair too high, or too soft. The most minor of such issues could affect me crucially. 

During the semester, I didn't have to sit so much, but there was still a lot to do in ministry and church and life. I didn't want to say that "God's grace was not sufficient for me" even through all this pain and emotional wreck. Though it really wasn't easy, because it's not like life was especially kind to me in other aspects aside from health. (Imagine going through your life now with a permanent stomachache that gets better or worse randomly throughout the day). What do you do, when you cannot do anything? Can't move nor stop moving; can't escape nor give up; can't stand up nor crumble totally; can't trust God nor doubt God? You hope. In the One who is above it all. 

I felt really frustrated, and at times a little angry with myself for not being able to trust God fully. A question that always came up in my mind is "How much should I trust the healthcare professionals? Or myself (since I'm more familiar with my symptoms and lifestyle and limits)? Or God?" I knew they weren't mutually exclusive, but in terms of priority of dependence, there is a specific ranking. And God wasn't always at the top. The 3 kept shifting, depending on the specific circumstance of each day. Sometimes, when God was on top, the other 2 would unintentionally fought for top spot. Sometimes, when God was not on top, through Holy Spirit and my experience with God, I would fight to place Him at the top.

Weeks and months of doing so unintentionally brought me to a new place. A place where my eyes and heart both showed me - eternity, where God resides. Neither of the two dependence brought me permanent relief. Only God could. This I knew for He did so before. For you see, its not just the physical pains that tears one down, but also the emotional distress from them as well. The sight and knowledge, by yourself and others, of how the life you once knew crumbled into something miserable and pathetic, was insanely difficult to accept or come to terms with. No matter how I depended on myself or on the healthcare professionals, all they could do was relief me of the physical pain temporarily and not the emotional pain. It's not that they (the other 2 dependence besides God) were lousy at re-assuring, but it's that they were ultimately mortals. Imperfect and unable to grant me a future. But God! His presence was more. His physical pain relief might not be "enough" for me at the particular moments when the pain was unbearable, but His presence is more than enough. He covers not just the present but also the future - the infinite future - Eternity

Sometime ago in October, we did a study on Joshua 5:1-12 in VCF about the entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land, and God's directions and instructions for them upon their entrance. (Please do read it before you continue!) During the session, questions were asked regarding the pain of circumcision, the rationality of their decision in disabling themselves in enemy territory, and their faith in putting the nation's safety and food security in the hands of God. Personally for me, it was the story of their patience and obedience. However, as we went around sharing about our learning points regarding the study, one of the people present shared her learning: 
"The  process of renewal and recommitment to God is sometimes painful, long and trying. The Israelites had to go through the circumsion to renew their covenant with God, which was a painful process leaving them extremely vulnerable and in a position where they had to surrender their safety and welfare to God. Likewise, when we re-dedicate our lives to God, it is not as easy as just praying for the ability to do so. but it will cost us something. Surrendering to God will leave us in a position of vulnerablity and sometimes might seem irrational. But it is in precisely this position that we can fully trust God to see us through, and this is what re-dedication is all about."
It was a sharing that shattered my heart, full of pain and doubt. It wasn't that I didn't know all these. But it was that I never knew what it meant to recommit, to re-dedicate. I had moments of disobedience, but never to the point that I felt I had to re-commit, since I never left. Yet the Israelites in the story was the same. This new generation was not faithless, complaining and stiff-necked like their forefathers, and was allowed into the Promised Land. They weren't circumcised to be punished for their sins. Instead, circumcision was almost like a "reward", one which differentiated them from their predecessors. It was a gift from God: for their glory, for their inheritance, for receiving God's covenant.

That understanding eventually led me to a conversation with God some time down the road. He told me, that He is with me, and I needn't worry. This, I already know. But yet, after that He said something more: "Sean, I love you, more than these." I couldn't help but burst out wailing. He didn't have to tell me what these are. No, maybe it's good that he didn't specify. It was everything that was crushing my spirit. Physical pains, emotional ones, responsibilities, feelings of isolation, the fatigue of serving and the unwelcomed restraints of life, even some pains that I couldn't identify and give words to. Yet His words tell me that, His love covers beyond even all these, beyond my pains or His pains for me - He was doing something beyond my suffering, and that there is something waiting at the end of all this. In between sobs and wails, my heart and lips moved on its own, in trust and love - "Lord, I love you, more than these too." The pains that destroyed my sanity, heart and body become the symbol of covenant between God and me. He longs for His purpose for me beyond my pains; I long for His presence with me beyond my pains. 

The Goal of Eternity

No longer limited by my flesh (though still affected and constrained), and with my sights lifted to Eternity much more often, things looked different to me now. Pains were still pains, but pains were more than pains. Pains were the signposts to look up and see eternity. While I used to think about eternity as an escape from pain, now eternity is instead an inheritance, a reward and an assurance for life on Earth. The reality of Eternity became indisputable, nearer and a lot easier to grasp. It's smellable - the scent of Heaven - reminding me that as Christian on earth, we are sent of Heaven. A piece of it, at least. 

As of now, I'm still not keenly aware of the why God  wanted me to realize this here and now, at the age of 25. Why me? Why was I given this revelation of Eternity so much earlier than most of my peers? Naturally, this revelation changed much of my perspectives on various things, though it'll still take time for them to solidify fully. I too, am still grappling with all the health issues. But surely, through this I know God more. I understand His thoughts and ways better. And I understand the world He lives in better. And, the sweetness of that, of being on His page, my heart beating based on His, I must say is indescribable. A quiet, indescribable sort of sweetness. 

What can separate me from the love of Christ? Romans 8:38-39 - "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." A lot of things on Earth was removed from the distance between God and I. Uncertainty, fear, ignorance, inadequacy, jobs, marriage, food security, persecution, sin. They didn't disappear into thin air, but they did lose their sting and now felt more like a blunt weapon which I could stand through the armor of God. Now I stand on solid ground. (Psalm 26:12). Now I know how to say: "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us." (Romans 8:36)

Once more, again, and forever, He is mine, and I am His. 

My condition started to improve about 1 month or so ago, when my mother got some chiropractor contacts from her friends and passed them to me. Why did I not go find chiropractors earlier? I really have no answer. Perhaps it was because I had prior experience; or had no particular recommended contacts; or wanted to trust God to do a miracle; or thought that I could overcome it by a change in lifestyle; or wanted to wait till the end of exams to think about it. Or a mix of everything. But regardless, it somehow didn't occur to me prior to this, and in the end I went, and thank God for my mum who suggested that to me. It's now getting better, though far from perfect. 

The check-up revealed to me that I had several root problems with my lower spine and neck, and a lot of secondary problems was caused by that. So the treatment revolved in re-aligning the problematic parts by physical manipulation as well as physio-therapy for the muscles. Frankly, I was rather surprised at the results. It wasn't perfect, not that I was expecting perfection, so patience is still required and in the meantime I still had to go and get some relief for the aches. The entire process would take months, maybe an entire half a year. And in the meantime, it's not like life stopped moving. There were still activities that I had to go through that might aggravate my situation (IPPT, NS).

Through this process of slow recovery and rehabilitation though, God taught me one more thing. Just like the Israelites who recommitted to God, God did not merely accept that, but reconstructed them. They were no longer a generation of uncircumcised desert travellers, but citizens of a country that God called them to and brought them there. Their circumcision became a symbol of their identity. From nomads, God reconstructed them and their identities into conquerors of the Promised Land. In the same way God led me through a period of recommitment, and what came after that was done was reconstruction. Not just of my health, but also of relationships, of responsibilities, of character, of perspective, of gifting, of environment, of courage and of faith. A deep, total reconstruction that could only be done because of where I am now. Perhaps our reconstruction would never end, till it culminates in the image of Christ. But I know that right now I'm going through a very special, particular reconstruction that came because of God's covenant with me. And I know, that there is more than these for both of us on the coming journey.

The Gift of Mortality

I want to admit that this entire year, I did not make it through while courageously walking  on and facing the fears and pains. No, I didn't choose this response - Jesus picked me up, held me in His arms, carried me in His embrace and walked me to the end. It was't the first time I had such an imagery in the difficult seasons of my life. But this time, that story had such a deeper, intimate meaning given my physical lack of mobility. I could not take a single step on my own. Jacob's story of wrestling with God, and his ruined hip in exchange for the blessing and presence of God, was no longer a mere beautiful history and biblical lesson, It was the wellspring of life, a love story from God reserved also for me, some thousands of years ago before I was born. 

Can eternity be grasped in the absence of mortality? I think yes, but not for mortals like you and I. For us, God prepared another way. Though mortal words cannot describe eternity, God knew that life, flesh and mortality were a gift that could let us understand eternity, and also bring us there. Jesus came in the flesh and died, to open the way. Prior to Jesus, 'Solomon' found eternity, as his writing in Ecclesiastes, through scouring through and reaching the end of mortality. Mortal words cannot help us grasp eternity, but mortal experiences can. Because God created them, and sees us through them, making holes in the fence of mortality that lets us catch a glimpse of eternity, and Himself.  

In those months of pain and suffering, I never saw mortality as a gift. If anything, it is a curse, the curse of sin that wrecked havoc on the Earth created by the perfect God. On numerous occasions, I sought to escape from it all, whether by desiring a heroic (and swift) end that brings me to heaven, or by indulging in worldly pleasures. I saw my pains as the result of sins, MY sins - and whatever suffering I got was what I deserved. My sufferings were the proof of my sinful nature, and its claim on my soul. I knew I going to heaven, that I never wavered in. But on the earth that was ravaged by sin, the outcome is suffering as its consequence. And yet, what is man, that You are mindful of them, that You would care for them? God whispered to me one day, while I was standing crushed by the weight of my sins: "I bought you at a price, together with your sin. I claim you, together with your sin." And I was set free, once more. In His skillful hands, my sin and fleshly nature would not remain as such. They would become the source of my beauty and glory through the work of Jesus. 

And that, is the gift of mortality. James say that humans are "a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (James 4:14). Indeed, we are a mist that, refined by God for the little while on Earth, and then vanishes - would become a beautiful, glorious decoration of Heaven, befitting of our Beloved King. Mist as we are, God has ordained an amount of time for this mist to exist. I learnt that as we continue to live and struggle and give our best for our God as mortals, His timing would be perfect. Not in the way we understand perfection, but in His understanding. Trust in HIS perfection, for it is the fabric that God Himself is made of. 


All of us have our own pains in life. Yours are probably not the same as mine (but well, it may be!) As a brother in Christ, I want to encourage you to count your costs of following Christ on earth. Just as eternity is understood through mortality, through the pains, sufferings, "injustice", God's silence, we count His healing, His comfort, His righteousness, and His ever-presence. In the most difficult of times, He exposes to us His presence that can never be taken away from us thereafter, a glimpse of Eternity and Himself. Let us not love pain. Let us hate suffering. But ultimately, let us desire God. There are times when I forgot about pain and suffering, as I look to find God. There are times when I forgot about God when I am in pain and suffering, yet God looks to find me. At times I reject Him, at times I blame Him, at times I rage at Him and become calculative, telling Him to do something for me for everything I've done for Him. And I've heard Him tell me: "What you did for me, will never be in vain.

Dear brother, dear sister, I know beyond a doubt, after all these years of counting costs, and especially after the crash course that I had in 2016, that no matter how good and detailed we are at it, there is none more calculative than our Father in Heaven. He counts our costs way more meticulously than us, and He will never let it go to waste. No matter what you face in your mortality on earth, I pray you take heart, peace and assurance, and know how costly you are in His sight. He forgoed Eternity, His home, to go through mortality for you and with you. His presence is with you, always and surely, to the very end of the age, until eternity.

You are dearly loved.

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