1. Learning “Seek first the Kingdom, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33) as an 8-year-old.
As I remembered Sunday school lessons as a toddler one memory came to mind. I literally gave God all the money I saved that year when I was a wee 8 years old. Mum cooked all the meals so she never gave me an allowance. However, Dad would leave a few cents on the table once in a while, and when he did, I would put it in my piggy bank if mum didn’t take it. I have a cute piggy bank shaped like a car. After 1 year, I had $5.32. I remember counting this money every day. I felt happy knowing I had some money, it was made me feel somewhat important.
In my grade school, there wasn’t a cafeteria, so mum made sandwiches for me every day. Because of this, the snack cart at school was like the forbidden fruit for me, and I would covet this particular Kraft brand cheese and crackers. It was really like the Holy Grail because mum controlled my diet so I never had anything close to this snack before. Additionally, this would be my very first official purchase with the money I saved! I really wanted it. $5.32 could get me probably 3 of those snacks! So that day, I took out my $5.32 to finally buy that treasure that I was waiting an more than a year for. Increasing the stakes was that I knew that our family was going to be permanently relocated from San Francisco back to Singapore, and so that money saved was like the prize waiting at the end of a 4-year journey in the USA. Like a completed story arc.
However, before school started on Monday, we had chapel and the offering bag was passed around. A tremendous tug-of-war of epic proportions waged in my heart. You see, this was the first time I had brought money that I had saved for myself. That money was very big to me at that time. I knew at that time that God would use my money to help the less fortunate… I felt God looking at me with his wise, loving eyes… waiting for my move. What would I do?
I can still remember today how I even at a young age I tried justifying to ignore the offering bag. “Didn’t I put 50 cents on Sunday?” I told myself. But God knows that was a different scenario. Last Sunday I went to church with my parents, and when the offering bag came in, mum gave me the 50 cents to it in. Those 50 cents was my parent’s money, I felt no sacrifice, it wasn’t mine.
As the bag got closer, I simply imagined passing it up when it came to me. Each time I ignored my heart, I felt restless.
But when the time finally came, I remember, putting the money into the offering bag – with great sorrow in my heart. I felt cheated. I felt… bad. No words can explain how I felt. I had given up my greatest desire at that point with the cheese snack… and that took me an entire year to save.
But something else happened, even harder to explain.
After a couple minutes, I remembered that great sorrow in my heart slowly morphed into feeling strangely warmed. I had never felt that feeling before… and even in the future that feeling only came in rare circumstances. Although I was attending Sunday School and Chapel services, that was the day I realized the extent of what God meant to me.
I was amazed.
That day, as a kid, I had just learnt HALF of an important lesson.
Just a couple days later saw the end of the school term. I was still having residual remorse over giving my money up. “I could have bought the snacks and shared them with my friends and I would have been so popular!”, I lamented.
During the last day in school, the teacher whipped out a pocket dictionary from her table. I remember it so fondly. It was about 5 inches wide, 7 inches in height and almost 3/4 of an inch thickness, ring bound in pristine condition. It had a white design cover and back, with red lines an inch from the spine and from the bottom.
“We are going to have a lottery today, kids. Every one of you pick a number between 1 and 25. The winner gets this book.”
My parents only bought us a toy or comic book twice a year, and as previously stated, also didn’t give us an allowance. Because of this, that dictionary was a much bigger prize than the cheese snack. An 8-year-old, I could never have bought that book for myself, it was worth more than $10. I hardly used a dictionary because at home, we had a very intimidating thick dictionary. The pocket-sized nature of the dictionary made it so much more cooler for me.
I remembered that I wasn’t excited at all for the lucky draw because I totally didn’t expect to win it. The odds are so low. There was much noise that day. Everybody wanted to have it.
“I pick 8, ma’am!”
“The dictionary is yours, Ken.”
I was stunned for a couple seconds. That’s impossible, I thought.
I could see the kids around me, they were either disappointed or envious.
All of a sudden, the same strangely warm feeling came back to me and I knew it was God’s way of telling me that today’s events were tied to the events a couple days ago. I gave up my world for God, so God gave me something I didn’t expect, and much better.
This was the other HALF of the lesson.
Together, from a young age, I understood “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matt 6:33).
What things you might ask? The verse before tells you that it is the things that “the pagans strive after”.
For the pagans strive after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you. (Matthew 6:32-33)
I thought I had given up such a big thing for Him, and He gave me back something better. And, the better that God gave back to me was what other people coveted. What the world coveted.
I gave my widow’s penny, and God gave me His. His penny is worth more.
I recall keeping and using that dictionary from the age of 8, all the way to the age of 23. It served as a reminder of God’s goodness, and also as a fond memory of my mum. During those years in San Francisco is when mum and I played the game of Scrabble the most, and we would use that dictionary. At the age of 23, mum passed away from cancer and the family moved house. The dictionary that might have meant nothing to another child is now part of the memories of my late mom.
When we are willing to give God our world, and no longer desire it, God gives us a bigger world back. The last shall be first, the first shall be last. The foolish shame the wise. He is the God of the Great Reversal.
Very often, do things to our Father’s heartbeat for the world, and give up our personal vanities; God can give us something even better.
Isn’t it peculiar about us humans that I didn’t know I wanted the dictionary until my teacher pulled it out? Very often, it is like that in life and with God. The reason it’s so hard for us to give up our worldly fixations is that we can’t see how we can have anything better.
But when better comes, it’s amazing.
But … I only gave you half the story. Here’s the other half of the story arc.
Right after the dictionary incident, my family returned to Singapore. This beautiful experience with God actually marked the starting point of my almost 4-decade losing fight with eczema. At the age of 10, my eczema started off mild. It was uncomfortable and an inconvenience. I had a couple of red patches in the folds on my elbows and knees.
By the age of 17, it started becoming very painful and affected my livelihood and self-esteem. The inflammations were on all parts of the body, and I would often go to school with bloodstains on my uniform. I couldn’t go to school regularly, was forced to give up sports, and my grades could never average more than Cs for most of my school life no matter how hard I tried.
At the age of 23, mum passed away from cancer and the family moved house. I felt numb because I couldn’t process the conflict between the dictionary symbolizing the good old days, and how my life was struggling mightily. I lost a great mum. My eczema was full-blown. While studying overseas, my girlfriend left for another. There was politics in the church I was a leader in. Not knowing how to move on from these losses, in an almost trancelike state, I placed the dictionary in the trash.
The smaller story arc of the Dictionary started in serendipity but ended in darkness, not in victory.
So what seemed to be Star Wars Episode 4 was really The Empire Strikes Back.
A Bait and Switch.
… as beautiful as that story was, that same story would sicken me if I read it a decade ago.
It would conjure up feelings of betrayal, regret, even a cruel joke – a sadistic satire of what my life was like a decade ago. The people who were so quick to give me the solutions that worked for them were quicker to be indifferent when I couldn’t get better. It was my fault I couldn’t get better, they thought. And in return, I shook my head thinking how obliviously lucky all of them were. Faulty genes leading to autoimmune problems is more mysterious than we know. 30 years of the best specialists and poor results is proof of that. But since they were healthy and flourishing, obviously they know more, right?
These stories would SICKEN me when I read it a decade ago.
The story above is almost wistfully sweet when enclosed within itself. But I know full well that these stories can be insulting for those who are in the midst of prolonged suffering and hopelessness. These people have tried everything, and nothing seems to work. What good are stories of “luck” in a small 8-year-old’s world in the face of real-life unjust suffering? What would holocaust prisoners do with such stories? What would forgotten veterans of the military suffering from PTSD and not having the skills to flourish as a civilian do with such stories? What would JOB in the Old Testament in the middle of his Abyss say about such stories? He gave God his all, and he got sores, sorrow and scorn in return.
Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. (Job 3:1)
I have felt exactly the same way – that such stories are luxuries for those with only 1st world problems.
You thought that was bad? It gets even worse.
In the $5.32 incident, God showed me that He loves me and knows what I am going through. He also showed that even when challenges occur, He already planned the solution / life lesson. I know He purposely taught me this a child, where child-like faith can grow deep. But how long can a person hold on to this blessed hope if adversity and calamity go on for… too long?
Part 2 in the next post, Part 2: Pariah.