Friday, 18 September 2015

What my in-laws taught me in London...

This week (early June 2015), I am in London. I will be travelling around UK for 2 week at least. I am travelling with my family and my in-laws. The aim of this "temporary migration" of a nerdy Singaporean to a far away land of mittens and body overall is because my brother in law (30 years old married with a son) is doing his PhD in Christian ethics and politics. He is no doubt the brainy one here. His father is a pastor (for at least 30 years) and in tow is his wife, a devout believer. In fact we just celebrated their 41st anniversary on Monday, 1 June 2015 (at Four Seasons Peking Duck restaurant at Chinatown, London).

My point of this post? Well, it has been an eye-opening trip so far and the family bonding is the fire that sets my heart alight amidst the chilly windy weather of London. And on one of the nights, after dinner, we had an engaging discussion (if not slightly heated) about my faith. But here is a little backdrop to set the stage.

If there were a barometer to measure one's level of belief, with doubt at one end and belief at the other, then I would be the pendulum that swings towards the side of doubt. As a student of faith, my report card would show marginal passes at best (even red overall at times). Belief is a strange creature of mental deliberation for me. I can never take it hook, line and sinker. I have a mind that cannot take yes for an answer or no for a question (that is, "yes, I am 100% sure" and "No, I am not 100% unsure?") The problem with me is that I am not 100% sure. Neither am I 100% unsure. Both statements find me stumped.

For this reason, many will label me as wishy-washy or half-past-six believer, or a backbencher. I can't really blame them. But for me, belief and faith are personal, and annoyingly subjective even. Just as no two fingerprints are alike, no two consciousness are the same. My consciousness speaks for myself and the consciousness of others speak for themselves. And speaking for myself, I can identify with the many doubting Thomases who struggle with faith as often as they struggle with understanding their body's quirks after forty.

So, that night after dinner, being solemnly arraigned, I was asked, "Personally, do you really believe?" I guess it was an expected (and fair) question since the only thing my wife could remember about her childhood is Sunday school, prayer after meals, biblical heroes of old, church choir and getting to church 30 minutes earlier. Her family had totally immersed her in the Christian culture and tradition. And questions like that is always answered in the positive, and most definitively.

It is also an important question. "Do you believe?" is a question that is unassuming in its form and essential in its substance. You see, we all live our whole life riding on the coattails of one belief after another - although we often fall short of being faithful to or consistent with them in thoughts and deeds. Paradoxically, having no belief is in fact a powerful belief no less (nihilism and fatalism come to mind). So, having the right belief is like a moral compass in life. It takes us from the lost to the found, the wanderings to the destination. 

So "Do I believe?" was the enticing appetizer for the night and mental indigestion was my strange company. Suddenly, the usually eloquent me (mostly talking poppycock) was tongue-tied. I was groping. I blurted out, "I keep an open mind." That was all I could say. It was not a yes (I believe) or a no (I do not believe) but a yes-and-no (Neither I believe nor disbelieve). Suddenly, I lost my center and I couldn't completely understand why I would withhold a definitive stand (so as to make an endearing impression with my in-laws).

Maybe the rustic and warmth setting have romanticized my sentiment into a spineless jello and I wanted to be tactlessly honest with dastardly consequences. The night was then spent trying to cement me into a definitive position. It was definitely not an entrapment. It was a clarification. But stubbornly, I resisted their earnest attempts for reasons I am still hopelessly befuddled. But this post is not about me; god knows this restless mind of mine will never settle down in the near future. I am an incorrigible over-thinker.

This post is actually about my brother-in-law, Nat, and my father-in-law, Dad. Nat, a PhD candidate, knew his faith well. He does not just study it as an academic course, he tries his earnest best to live, uphold, protect, advance, and savor it. It is simple faith from a thinking man. Unlike many whom I have unfortunately come to know, Nat will say it as it is and mince words only if he was in the presence of pristine royalty. Other than that (what are the odds of that happening right?), he puts it in the best way he knows how and it was good enough for me.

He no doubt wanted me to take a position because without a position, whereforth do I set off from? And without an end in mind, where then should I start with the first step? So, Nat changed tack. He proposed probability - "Do you believe more than you disbelieve?" Like feeding an old man without teeth, Nat fed me the empathy of a bowl of porridge. It was more digestible, more palatable. And I answered that in the affirmative - "Yes, I believe more than disbelieve." But that was not all.

Nat knew my struggles and spelt it out in a way that risk himself being labeled a doubting Thomas himself. He said - and I paraphrase for effect from my subjective standpoint - "I understand where you are coming from. But I admit my ignorance here too. I do not have the answers about gratuitous suffering and all. Faith is a mystery revealed in Christ. It will always remain a mystery. But it is not a mystery that repels faith. It in fact embraces it. It is a mystery that deepens understanding and not muddles it. It is a reasonable mystery but not always an agreeable one. So, it is not unreasonable not to be 100% sure at times. For me, I know for whom my Savior died for and I rest in that blessed assurance amidst the understanding I know not."

That was what I heard in my heart from Nat and it went in some ways to stabilize my restless existential palpitations.

Then came my dad. He was relatively silent throughout. He elected to counsel via silence. He asked the same questions no doubt but he asked it with the heart to understand and not with the mind to win an argument. His silence ministered to me more than what words could ever do. And if applied wisdom ever practiced favoritism, then it would be silence above words, understanding above arguments, and pleading ignorance above showboating knowledge.

Dad spoke to me and his words unspoken stayed with me throughout the night right through the morning. It was in the morning-after that the clouds began to clear for me and it cleared just enough for me to catch a glimpse of the meaning of faith, the humility of acknowledged ignorance and the power of selfless love. Cheerz.

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