Christmas time is here!
There will be many stories and posts galore encouraging hope and cheer. So here’s my obligatory cheery Christmas snippet message:
Santa, shopping, trees just there to tease’em.
Where’s that real love and joy – how to keep’em?
See the light of the world shine like a beacon.
Jesus is the real reason for the season!
(written by Kenneth Koh, © Dec 23, 2017)
Phew. I’ve got my Jesus message, I got my rhymes. I got my girly pic. Now that my pic has traumatized you and is out of the way, I actually do want to write something in the spirit of Christmas that is very real to me. To me, Christmas was God revealing a deep part of His heart to mankind that took centuries of human drama, a clockwork universe and God’s timing to set up perfectly. For ages, God was shrouded in mystery. For instance, we claim God loves us, but what does that love actually look like? I’m sure Hitler claimed he loved Germany. The world itself is so incredibly imperfect, how could one living in this world be able to know anything more than it? Jesus was not born into a utopia, he was born into a world full of grime and chaos. He was like a golden nugget of truth in a dank dirt-filled mine. At Christmas, God finally revealed a truth from deep within His heart. This revelation completed the puzzle-box of revealing what his love looks like and our place in this cosmic story. Like a diamond created under centuries of grime, darkness, and pressure – please also allow me to go past the superficial and share with you something deep from within mine (pun intended)?
Spoiler Alert: This post is going to be DARK. Like, Empire Strikes Back dark. A dark post on Christmas Eve? Thanks for letting me be real.
To me, Christmas is about sober honesty. It is about admitting the grime and seeing the light for what it really is. Today’s post will be about the grime. It is grime that creates the necessary complement for the greatest story told, for if man were not so hopeless, the greatest hope in history loses its meaning. A hero is only as good as his villain. (Unless you’re Rey in The Last Jedi. Kylo’s a petulant, whiny villain with daddy issues. Based on the principle of hero/villain equality, Rey should be as heroic as Homer Simpson, but instead, Rey beats him in almost everything with virtually no training whatsoever, with no reason given for her awesomeness and character. #ventingonfranchisedeath)
Slogans will abound, like “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Joy to the World”. Stories that proselytize God’s heart for us while exploring why Jesus had to be born will be aplenty.
Most people would automatically expect me to write a light-hearted, heart-warming celebratory Christmas post. Stereotypes dictate that I, a person who creates encouraging Christian media would be excited to post a celebratory Jesus story at Christmas… just like bees are attracted to honey. Manuka honey. But truth be told, I haven’t celebrated Christmas for probably over 10 years – so long that I forgot when I stopped. This is strange behavior for someone many people predicted would be a pastor growing up. If not for a good ministry friend seriously continually prompting me, I might not have written anything at all. So today I had to reach deep inside, hesitating many times, trying to make sense of the conflict within before finally birthing this message.
Let me tell you a secret. Today, I have a much deeper respect for Christmas, but for the last 10 years, Christmas filled me regret and disgust.
Do you feel lonely or angry for the holidays too? Today, I want to honestly share with you my thoughts at that time, and what God’s voice was saying in the background. Though in the darkness it seems that God is not speaking, but God’s remnant voice is always speaking in the frequency of your spirit. When I look back today, I recognize the shadows of inspiration that kept me going were Bible promises whose transmission was within the realm of my spirit even when my “ears” could no longer hear it. These living Words of God were alive even when my soul was dead. Today, it is of great comfort knowing that God’s Word in us continues their effect even when we are useless.
My brother, God is speaking to you even now, even if our “ears” cannot hear it.
And when God speaks, it is not without effect.
God’s voice:: Do not be afraid. My will for you will be accomplished even if the winds and waves drown my words out.
So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Is 55:11)
How Dissonance led to Disgust
When I was younger, as a teen, Christmas meant something. Sure, there were relatives abound, with gifts and well-wishes for us children. I was raised in a small Methodist, and then big Charismatic church, had a walk with God and knew Jesus was my atonement for sin. But somehow, I knew there was something even more undergirding all of those festivities that made Christmas more special. If it were not so, why did Christmas feel different from Chinese New Year (which I got way richer because of all the red packets, that signified luck and prosperity, filled with money my relatives gave me), or something that fills the shops with noisy, excited customers like Thanksgiving’s Black Friday?
Life was better then. But fast forward to after I graduated from college and you’ll see me stumbled greatly in all areas of life, slowly journeying into obscurity. From graduating from an Ivy League university, being a young Christian leader; from being well-liked in all areas of life, from church, to school to family, I succumbed to a medical problem that doctors couldn’t cure, and became very misunderstood by people around me.
To get a better sense of my journey, see my testimony video here.
Church mates and some family members thought my skin problem was not as serious and thought my inability to consistently serve in church and work well at my job was because I was too weak in character. Too lazy. Too conflicted. Too unmotivated. Too much time spent vegetating in front of the PC playing games. The truth was the total opposite, I was continually fighting against an unwinnable disease, debilitating searing pains and inevitable daunting existential questions. I was fighting hard to maximize all small opportunities with whatever remnants of resources I had left, be it IQ, small pockets of time that my skin was temporarily manageable (but still painful), or friendly social connections developed from long ago.
God’s voice: I will supply you not based on your economy limited by scarcity, but on my glorious standard.
And my God will supply all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:19)
Declining options. A journey into madness.
My mind was always working overtime, even scheming while I was dreaming of some way out of this mess. Yet, others thought I was comfortable in this mess as if my failure made them feel validated. How could someone with good character, talented and God-loved people fall into a mess like this?
“Well, nothing wrong with God. Nothing wrong with his talent. So something must be wrong with his character,” they reasoned.
They never said it out-loud like that, but I knew from the way they ignored me or treated me. And, “You’re an eagle, don’t associate with the chickens on the ground; people who have no faith and obviously don’t have the favour of God.” was the stereotypical churchy saying of the day within the church I was associated within that time as well. However, what it practically got distilled down to was “good Christians don’t associate with losers.”
I guess that loser was me.
God’s voice: Are you a loser? You’re the best candidate for me to build my kingdom.
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1 Cor 1:27)
By the time it got to the year of 2008, just eight years after graduation from college, I was alone in my bedroom. I was forced to quit my job as a teacher due to overwhelming debilitation. I was dancing with the devil, and the dance was fatalism. What future could I have if my skin problem is getting worse no matter what I do? If I attempted to go outdoors, my skin problem would get worse faster. But even if I did not, the autoimmune problem would still get worse, just at a slower rate. Decades of medicine and medical advice did not give me a long-term solution. As an analyst, extrapolating my future was easy, and I was crippled with multitudes of decision trees that I was formulating non-stop in my brain. Each combination of decision-making from what I would do 1 hour from that point, or what doctor or what church I church I might serve in all ended up with me dying alone and forgotten. With each calculation of decision branches within that tree pointing to obscurity, one gets a step closer to madness. In his book Orthodoxy, Christian philosopher G.K. Chesterton writes: “Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.”
I am that chess-player. And yes, I was going mad.
(I mean seriously, I had a US chess federation chess ranking of about 2050 at the time – here’s a sample game for holiday cheer – I’m playing white.).
Hmm. Paul of Tarsus was accused of the very same thing, so perhaps I am in good company?
“You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” (Acts 26:24)
I needed fuel for my imagination, for logic had sealed my fate.
God’s voice: Rest in my love to give your thoughts purpose. Those dead ends will lead to great places.
You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast because they trust in you. (Is 26:3)
God’s voice: You are limited by your imagination. If you are my child, your destiny is not limited.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, (Eph 3:20)
One can only be rejected by God’s people for so long before one believes the rejection comes from God himself.
By this time, my social circles had all dried up. Although I served the church and people for years, very few people came to visit, and of those that did, none of them could offer a solution. And worse still, even fewer had any empathy for me.
In the course of my decline from between 2001 and 2008, I refrained from sharing too many intimate details and thoughts to 2 types of people. I refrained from sharing too much with atheists because they could not make sense of the remnants of faith I still had. I also shared less with the Christians who were “pew-warmers” because they didn’t know enough Bible or apologetics to see why I had a crisis of faith. So, in a moment of quiet desperation, I remember calling up a “friend” in church who seemed to be a mature Christian. He was well read and a pastor in training and I was sure he would empathize with my crisis of faith but he cut me off after 5 minutes, suggesting I talk to someone else. Can someone who has the Holy Spirit lack empathy? It seems that my atheist religious studies professors I studied under during my college days were right all along – that there is no true Holy Spirit, that these so-called religious zealots are not remarkable at all – Is Biblical grace just a romantic human-generated idea for behavior modification? Was it not a true supernatural force that really transforms lives? It seems so as even wannabe pastors seem to lack compassion and want to associate themselves with winners. A person can only take rejection from God’s people for so long before he is convinced that it is God Himself who is rejecting him.
But a good God wouldn’t reject a sincere seeker. Jesus would never have done that. Does this mean that the God I knew doesn’t exist? But, he has to, deep in my spirit reasoned, for God had changed me years ago (when I dedicated my life to Christ) to have the very same empathy I wished others would have had for me. That’s one of the reasons why I believed the Holy Spirit existed, and by extension, Jesus. Perhaps God might exist, but I still felt alone and rejected by the world around me.
God’s voice: Even if all your friends or church don’t help you, I will raise you to a higher place myself.
When my father and my mother forsake me, then the LORD will take me up.
The hidden war: two realities competing for my soul.
If God doesn’t exist, then all of us are made up of cosmic goo that will only dance to the tune of our own DNA. There is no real free choice, and there is no real reason for altruism. As the famous atheist philosopher, Bertrand Russell says, “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless” and man lives on the bedrock of “unyielding despair”.
If God exists, then we can be sons of God, with a divine purpose and have the ability to not be a slave to our own sinful nature or selfish genes. That our ultimate destiny is not determined by the vast indifference of the clockwork universe surrounded by selfish man.
God’s voice: I am the author and finisher of your faith, you are not a slave to the universe around you.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
In my intense spiritual warfare where my body was wasting away while I was clinging on to hope in God and the church, the lack of love or faith for someone like me reaffirmed my skeptical side that these other people are simply dancing to the tune of their own DNA, they only cared about themselves, only partnered up with people who are worth something to them, and are truly bound to the limitations of their own experiences and desires. Where was the faith that God could heal me? And even if God didn’t, why wasn’t anyone even angry or upset that God was allowing such soul-crushing experiences on me? It’s like they might read me a bible verse or two, and either not care what happens to me later or blame me for God’s promises not working.
Hence, the dissonance that was tearing me apart was this: with every day that passes during that time, there seemed to be more “evidence” that perhaps there was no God, or that He betrayed me. But simultaneously, in the hidden part of my spirit man, I was holding on to the hope that He did exist and He is love. Like the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment, both were real realities for me at the same time, and there was a war in my spirit where I was continually waiting for new evidence would push me more in one direction or the other.
God’s voice: You don’t understand it now, but there is a good purpose behind it.
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
God’s voice: I will use both good things and bad things to create your story of beauty and redemption.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
The great contrast of loving and feeling loved by God, and subsequently being stricken with infirmity and rejection was too big for my comprehension.
More than 15 years after college, I recently reconnected with a junior who attended the Christian Fellowship after I graduated. She was telling me that I was a “legend” at Christian Fellowship, and that people were talking well about me even after I graduated. Apparently, I was some kind of hero? I never would have considered myself as a hero, but I do remember trying hard to seek the truth and loving people while struggling with the early stages of my infirmity. If this was so, then it would be the cruelest joke that God would allow a “legend” to go through things that I wouldn’t even wish on my worst enemy. The great contrast of loving and feeling loved by God, and subsequently being stricken with infirmity and rejection was too big for my comprehension. How does one deal with the injustice of it all? I felt like a person chained to a sinking ship with the ocean waves crashing against me. Each fact that came to light were like waves that crashed on me, I can breathe at times, but at times it’s suffocating. As with drowning, once you’ve given up the fight, you might get comfortable with the warmth of the water, but it’s a dangerous place to be as you inevitably inch closer to your fate …
God’s voice: I will be with you even in the darkest of nights.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
God’s voice: I will save even the smallest and most undeserving should they call upon me.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me;
he delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame.
This poor man called, and the Lord heard him;
he saved him out of all his troubles.
Back to the Christmas season.
As each Christmas passes by, friends and family would be celebrating, going out and doing things together. But I find myself sitting in the dark alone, wondering how I even got to this point. There would be smidgens of kind gestures to me … a couple of presents here and there by family and well-wishes from the few good friends I have left. But ultimately all of it left a bad taste in my mouth.
This great frustration in my heart that led to dissonance, what caused it? It wasn’t pain, actually; because I have a very large threshold for pain. I have suffered days of what seems like second-degree burns without complaining. It wasn’t lack of heart either. When I was a teen, I would rather walk 4 miles instead of taking a bus in order that I could save that addition 50 cents a day so that I could send my friend on a mission trip. As time went by, what ailed my soul became clearer, it was the hopelessness of it all. Over time, that hopelessness evolved into a massive struggle with injustice. Injustice was what was eating me.
It was the injustice that became too much to bear when I realized that no matter what I did, there was nothing I could do to escape my fate. Concurrently, I saw people who appeared to be far eviler than I have much easier lives. The “realization” that all my time and effort spent seeking God allowing a transformation of my soul seemed to be in vain, and that some others who were not as sincere in their journeys were flourishing filled me with regret I dedicated a big portion of my life to the cause.
But my personal experience opened the window for a much larger observation – that there was just too much in the world, and the reason this was brought to my attention is that I was a big victim of it. There were too many “downtrodden” and are victims of their circumstances and backgrounds. An indignant anger would arise, convinced that all these people celebrating Christmas simply haven’t suffered enough. The thought that other Christians like the earlier described pastor-in-training was also exhorting others on stage to celebrate Christmas seemed jarring in its hypocrisy. This would lead to even more dissonance. Surely the very person you are celebrating would be disapproving of the lack of empathy or even compassion you displayed?
A very unchristian feeling, I know. Do you think less of me?
Drowning was I, in the sea of regret, dissonance, and injustice.
All Christmas did was to remind me that I once followed Christ so faithfully, and now I felt betrayed by Him – like a jilted lover having to go through old photo albums of times together.
Injustice. Betrayed. Regret. A sea of despair.
Just like the how Luke, Leia and the others felt towards the last act of “The Empire Strikes Back”.
That’s what Christmas meant to me from 2003 to 2015.
But it was this set up that caused me to appreciate Christmas very differently today. I mean literally today. My next post with reveal the evolution to see God’s purposes and grace with a wider lens… and see my own redemption story within it.
My friends, has your season been one of continual pain?
Don’t forget that God will not cause birth pains without giving birth to something new. Is 66:9
Birth. Reminds me of Christmas.
Jesus’ physical birth points to your own birth of newness – the pain will be worth it.
God’s voice: Even if you can’t fathom how anything can become better, I already did and have.
“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
God’s voice: Deep inside you, you already know everything will work out, for I set it into the eternity of your heart before everything else became a mess.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
God’s voice: I’m not just going to repair things broken, I will make them new – better in quantity or quality than before.
Behold, I make all things new.
Merry Christmas (Part 1),
END OF PART ONE.
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