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For since the beginning of the world
Men have not heard nor perceived by the ear,
Nor has the eye seen any God besides You,
Who acts for the one who waits for Him. – Isaiah 64:4

There’s a certain balance between pain and acceptance, I think, which is supposed to reside in the hearts of those who’ve experienced grievous trouble. It’s a mark of the world and its sorrows having touched us, an almost unavoidable badge of existence in a broken universe. It cannot be removed, though it can be redeemed, and it cannot be reversed – only allowed to reveal its message in the continued unfolding of life.

Left to itself, this balance can be upset, the scale of agony tipping under the festering weight of time and suppression, to the point where it completely outpaces our ability to come to terms with things. But given sufficient attention and treatment through the right kind of engagement and expression, the scales can manage to stay at a relatively healthy level of détente, allowing us to grow out of the shadow of a challenging cleft, rather than smother in the darkness of a deathly valley.

tiny sprout

“I can shake off everything if I write, my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn,” wrote Anne Frank. And I find that to have been the case with me. Since writing to my father, I’ve noticed a change in myself… how I generally feel, how I look at my family situation, how well I think I’ll cope if I were to speak to him again.

There were things I needed to say which I never had the opportunity or gumption to, and it affected me in a lot of ways – in terms of my outlook, my confidence, my general disposition, my self-image. And putting them into words at last… taking the time to order and articulate what exactly I felt and wanted to say – has been healing. Surprisingly so, even.

It’s like a river that got stopped up inside me for a long time has been unblocked, and a steady, if small stream of life has started trickling again. It doesn’t mean I’m fine now, or that I’ll have no trouble if my dad calls… but I’m closer to a healthy détente than I have been in years.

A shoot of courage has sprouted out of the ashes of my pain and anger – courage to face the future, reborn after the killing storms of rejection and disconnectedness and dread. And though my sorrows haven’t completely disappeared, it’s as if a distorting lens has been taken off my eyes, and my vision, though still prone to a welling mist at difficult moments, is no longer swamped with the overwhelming fog of tears.

All of which is to say… I feel better. I feel better now that I’ve let those thoughts out. And though I don’t know if the effects will last long term (I’ve been on this ride long enough to know that it’s more of a merry-go-round than a roller coaster), I’m glad that I’m not as pent up, angsty or in pain as I was, at least. Some of the poison has been purged, and my insides are lighter for it.

So… I guess that’s another step on the road to recovery. And I thank God for it. I don’t know why these things have to take as much time and work as they do, but apparently they do. At least for me. … There’s a notion left over from the way I was brought up that I should be able to shake off any pain that comes, or adapt to it quickly, without it significantly impairing my ability to live normally. But I’ve found out the long and hard way that I can’t.

The soul can be injured as much as the body, and it can incapacitate one just the same, if not in the same ways. And I guess I’ve had a tendency to want to underestimate how injured I was along the way. To keep wondering why I was still wrestling with things that I should’ve put behind me long ago, without realising that things aren’t simply put behind you because you want them to be… they only are when you actually do something to address them.

So – who knows what I’ll need to do next? … The only thing that’s clear to me is I’ve some time to make up for, and things to catch up with, now I’m better able to.

And for now, that’s enough.

little fish

So… time for another one of these~

Unlike normal Q&As, special editions focus more extensively on a particular topic and tend to be related in subject matter. The first ever touched on the jealousy of God; the second the love of God; and the third, the righteousness and sovereignty of God.

This instalment is part of a new cycle of related subjects which began with a look at sin. It discusses whether works affect our standing before God, vis-à-vis a debate over the validity of a quote by John Knox.


***
 

Q: “No works make us unrighteous – for if any work made us unrighteous, then the contrary works would make us righteous. But it is proven that no work can make us righteous: Ergo, no works make us unrighteous.” – John Knox

Doing good works does not make anyone righteous. Rather those who are righteous do good works for a good tree brings forth good fruit. Thus an evil tree brings forth bad fruit. In other words, the fruit does not determine whether the tree is good or bad, but the tree determines whether the fruit is good or bad.

Knox goes on to say that, “First we are good before we do good works, & evil before we do evil works, therefore, works neither save us nor condemn us.”

A: It is abundantly clear from other parts of Scripture that works mark a person out as righteous or unrighteous, and that certain unrighteous works may indeed worsen one’s condemnation before God. … In fact, one might even argue that if no work can make us righteous, then many of the things we do can only serve to make us more unrighteous, not less.

Upholding justification by faith alone doesn’t entitle anyone to make a statement that ends up warping/denying other fundamental truths in Scripture (in this case, that a man’s actions help to define who he is, and indeed cannot be divorced from who he is – as evidenced by Jesus’ parable of the two sons, the letters of John and James, and the myriad verses in the prophets that tell the people of God to do works consistent with what they confess with their mouths).

So if Knox meant to say that a person cannot be justified by works, or that a person is already condemned before God by virtue of original sin before he has even actually done anything unrighteous, then he should have simply said so. But instead, he singled out one essential idea in Scripture, extended it beyond the boundaries of its reasonable use, and constructed a rhetorically questionable statement that, when held up against the whole counsel of the word, is actually hermeneutically flawed. … That is not the best way to go about teaching the word of God.


Q: Good works do not make a man good, neither do evil works make a man evil. Evil men produce wicked fruits, good men produce good fruits. That is abundantly clear from Scripture as the example from the good tree analogy. This is also testified to by the words, “For without faith it is impossible to please God.” Certainly the fruit being produced bears witness to whether the tree is good or bad. Knox says as much as he goes on. But we cannot think that a man is accepted before God based upon any works that he may perform, or may not perform. And works cannot make us more or less righteous before God. I think your charges against Knox are without merit.

A: You’re free to agree/disagree of course… I for one maintain my belief that this particular quote is wrong because it derives a false opposite.

Knox claims that because we cannot be justified by works, that means we cannot be made unrighteous by works. Of course, one can argue that we are already condemned before God because we are all sinners, and therefore nothing else we do can change the fact that we are already headed for judgement, but Scripture tells us clearly in many places that what we do can worsen our judgement – that we can add sin to sin, and sin yet more, and some of us can make ourselves more loathsome to God, and even more condemned than others. This shows that the true opposite to the notion that we are not justified by works, is not that works therefore also have no power to make us unrighteous, but that certain works can, and do, have that very effect. James says that desire conceives and gives birth to sin, and while sin does begin as a twinkle in the eye of the human heart, it is consummated when a person acts. King David may have committed adultery in his heart already when he spied Bathsheba, but if he hadn’t acted on his desire, he would’ve been less unrighteous than when he did (and certainly than when he then went on to murder her husband to cover up his sin).

One cannot say, “Well since I’m a bad tree and have evil in my heart, I might as well act on it since it makes no difference to me.” Scripture and common sense both tell us that there’s clearly a difference. And my concern with what Knox is saying is precisely that: he’s implying that if you’re already a bad tree, then what you do (or don’t do) won’t add or take away anything from the fact. And he’s saying this simply because Scripture DOES teach that if you are not justified by faith in the atonement of God, then nothing else will make you right with Him. But the two are not logical extensions of each other. And I think it’s misleading (if not downright dangerous) for him to say that they are…


Q: Then I will choose to agree with Knox. Our only righteousness is that righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith. Our standing before God as righteous is based solely upon the merits of Him who gave Himself for our sins. While continued sin may increase one’s judgment that does not warrant the conclusion that it increases their unrighteousness. It is quite appropriate to think that if bad works increase my unrighteousness, then good works must increase my righteousness, thus I can come to attain a holy standing before God based upon my obedience to the law apart from faith in Christ. We both know that is a false assumption. Even perfect obedience to the law without faith in Christ will not save an individual. Thus I conclude that a perfect obedience to the law without faith is still unrighteousness. Thus I stand with Knox as this is in perfect harmony with Scripture.

A:
> It is quite appropriate to think that if bad works increase my unrighteousness, then good works must increase my righteousness

In a manner of speaking, that is actually true. The problem here is that there are distinct senses of righteousness in the Scripture, and it depends on the context. The perfect righteousness that justifies before God is of Christ, and is effective for salvation. There is no substitute for that. But there is also a more general sense of righteousness in the Scriptures as well, where certain actions are recognised as righteous/unrighteous, as well as less/more righteous/unrighteous than others. Otherwise, verses such as Judah’s commendation of Tamar (“She is more righteous than I”) would have no meaning.

While I can recognise that Knox is right in the idea that nothing can make us more righteous before God than Christ, the problem I have is with his rhetoric, and his logic. They are not in perfect harmony with Scripture as you say. If he wanted to make the point that the condition of the heart is more important than one’s actual works when it comes to justification before God, then as I’ve said before, he should’ve just said so. But to say that works cannot make one unrighteous is, in itself, erroneous. This is because the Biblical worldview, when taken in its entirety, upholds the co-action of faith and works. Works proceed from the heart of a man, but works also serve to reinforce what is in a man, not just to declare it. Thus to whoever has, more will be given, whereas to the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. So while good/bad trees produce good/bad fruit, that is not the end of the story: one’s works may not save or make one justified before God, but it is also true that among the saints, there are some more righteous than others, because they have done much for the kingdom. This is something that the Scripture says; it is a perfectly Biblical way of thinking and talking (just as, by the same token, there are some sinners who are worse than others because of what they’ve done/said). This is why I disagree with Knox’s conclusion, and with yours, when you say:

> While continued sin may increase one’s judgment that does not warrant the conclusion that it increases their unrighteousness.

My question is, why not? Why is it not warranted? Because a certain understanding of righteousness has been advanced to the exclusion of another (but no less meaningful, and Biblical) understanding here?

… At the end of the day, I suppose you could say this is a quibble. But I don’t think that it’s so simple or trivial a matter as that. It is my belief that the word of God should be honoured and understood in the fullest and most accurate sense possible, as often as possible. And here we have a statement that harmonises with part of Scripture, but not all of it, and yet presents itself as if it does. And while that in itself is not necessarily a problem, I think it CAN lead to problems when it starts to obscure other teachings in Scripture that are also important – in this case, the truth that what we do matters, as evidenced by the aforementioned parable of the two sons, John and James’ letters, the prophets etc.

I have no problem with someone saying that our actions cannot improve upon what Christ has already done for us, or that nothing we do will save us unless we first put our faith in Christ. But if it’s worded in such a way that it intimates that what we say/do cannot make us better/worse people, that it makes no difference in the greater scheme of things since we are already either condemned or saved, that God does not differentiate between a man who acts and a man who doesn’t (whether for better or for worse), then I don’t agree with it. … I think the statement itself should be changed/qualified to better present the truth.
 

A Golden Thread by John Melhuish Strudwick

“Samaria did not commit half of your sins; but you have multiplied your abominations more than they, and have justified your sisters by all the abominations which you have done. You who judged your sisters, bear your own shame also, because the sins which you committed were more abominable than theirs; they are more righteous than you.” – Ezekiel 16:51-52

Dear Dad: IV

 

It struck me today that it’s been 10 years, properly, now since everything fell apart. How’re you dealing with that? Are you even aware of the fact?

… How often do you dream of home?

I do it quite a bit.

I dream about our family, our relatives, Po-po’s old house, our house… high school friends, university, our hometown… all the people and things that I know and am attached to. That shaped me, touched me and left an imprint on my soul. And very often in those dreams, either nothing is wrong – time hasn’t passed, all the bad things never happened, and everyone’s there… everything’s fine; or I know that what happened did happen, but the pieces are coming back together and we’re starting to pick up where we left off – we’re in the process of moving back into a house together… our life and home and relationship are being restored in some way.

In either case, I’m surrounded by everything I know and want, and it feels like the most normal, natural thing in the world.

Telling right? … I either dream about the past, or the future. Hardly ever the present. Shows you where my thoughts are (though since I started writing these letters, I noticed the dreams have greatly decreased; so maybe this exercise is achieving its intended therapeutic effect).

I think it’s because some part of me has remained frozen since 2005. I’ve heard that trauma can do that to you – psychologically stop time. It’s dormant when I’m awake, buried under the trappings of necessity and responsibility and requisite attempts at maturity; but when my consciousness relaxes its grip on reality, that part reasserts itself and comes into its own – awakens out of forced hibernation, and reconstructs from sheer memory an entire world and life for which it starves.

… And then on the other hand, part of me dwells in the future. In the unknown. It hopes and desires for change, but can’t see what will be or delineate how things will happen, so it spins the fabric of its reality out of speculation and imagination, weaving scraps of the familiar and projected in with the hoped for and longed for. And the result is typically tinged with surreality.

Does that happen with you?

… Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who feels our loss the way I do. In one sense, I know that I am because I’m the only one who looks at it this way, who sees it as the Biblical tragedy that it is (well, apart from our handful of Christian relations that is). But in another sense, it can’t be easy for you and Mom. I’m sure you feel the hollowness even more deeply than I do – how could you not, with the decades ahead of me that you had to build your lives and make a home? Yet when I’ve talked with you or my brother or our relatives, you all seem focused on moving on – you’re still in exile; they hate and fear the medium and feel helpless about the situation; but when you all talk to me, you urge me to resume communication. You focus on the fact we’re family, and family accepts. Forgives.

I – don’t know what to say to that. I know what I think, and I’ve written a good part of it out the last few entries. But when faced with people who feel so differently to me, who don’t see what I see and won’t understand me, I just – don’t know what to say. … To me, it’s not a matter of forgiveness or acceptance. To me, it’s about addressing something fundamentally, horribly wrong so that real healing, real reconciliation, real transformation can occur. It’s about confession, and repentance. Without that, without honesty and truth, all the contact in the world won’t change a thing. All we’ll do is hobble along indefinitely, holding onto each other vainly from a distance, trying our hardest to pretend nothing’s wrong even though every minute of reality is screaming out its direness at us, and then – I don’t even want to think about what will happen after that.

… And I know I’m a disappointment as a result. I know that my silence and reticence are a source of disapproval for all of you. But how can I explain? How’m I supposed to get you to understand? To the rest of you, family is paramount. God, the God of the Bible, is not who He is. Your afterlives are secure. These are the notions on which your entire realities are based, and to contradict them is to invite scorn/pity at best, and ire/offence/a breach at worst.

You know there’re days when anger is all I have. It’s the only thing that manages to help me counteract the helplessness and hopelessness I feel, because it’s the only emotional resource I have to draw on which gives me the mental strength and conviction I need to believe that things cannot possibly remain thus. That they must change, because truth must be stronger than delusion. It must be.

But consequently, because this is how the situation stands, even though I don’t think about it very often at all… I’m actually very alone. I realised it for the first time when my brother showed a possibility of turning back in 2009, when he asked me to tell him the truth about what happened. … So I guess what they say is true. You can’t miss what you don’t know. But once I got that tiny, tiny little taste of not being alone – my solitude has stood out starkly against the backdrop of life.

… It’s not the same that I have friends who know what happened. It’s not the same that D does, even. There’s simply no substitute for the solidarity of having your own people, your own flesh and blood – the ones who know you, share the same wellspring as you, and see things the way you do more than anybody else in the whole world – standing with you on exactly the same page. And the fact I’ve gone without it for so long… makes me worry about my mental health sometimes.

Is it going to affect me long term? Am I going to end up warped in some way? Will it cause a permanent change/damage to my psyche?

… Sometimes I step back, look at myself and feel that it’s already happened; that the effect of this pain has already solidified into the shape of an abnormally withdrawn, mistrustful, sensitive, pessimistic person; and the worry deepens into pangs.

I don’t want to be this way. I don’t want to go through life being defined by the things that’ve gone wrong or which are missing from my life. I tell myself that it’s better to remember and hold on to God’s promises, to be thankful for what I have, and to make the most of this bittersweet freedom – to focus on making a life for myself that can still be filled with beauty and opportunities for gladness; where I’m more fully defined by my faith and the new identity I’m supposed to have in Him; where I can be the person I never had the chance to be, and never could’ve been, if not for this long road “by way of the wilderness of the Red Sea.”

Sometimes that’s hard to do. Sometimes I can’t manage it and just have to sit through a rough patch. But thankfully, the pangs do tend to be something I can shake off. … I may be changed, but I tell myself that God can restore the years the locusts have eaten, and I stop worrying. That’s not hard; it’s one thing I still don’t have much trouble believing, at least.

So it goes.

You know I’ve learned to grow stuff. In the garden. We have a bit of space, and it’s helped me appreciate what I remember about the way you used to like pottering around the yard (Nei-nei has a green thumb too, so I guess it runs in the family).

… I think you’d be impressed at the amount of grapes we get every year and how good they are.

I’ve become a tolerable cook; sometimes I wonder what you’d think of a dish I’ve made – sometimes I dare to imagine us finding out one day. I also found that I like to take photographs, and I’ve taken some decent ones, though I haven’t done much of that the last few years. … I’ve opened 2 blogs, written a lot. Worked some odd (sometimes literally) jobs. And I discovered that I have an affinity for birds – who knew?

… I think I’m quite different to the person I was when I first came here – certainly I’m much different as a Christian – though sometimes I wonder how much of my old self would resurface if I were placed back in Malaysia. I’ve had time and space to realise things about myself and our family that I was never aware of, that I might’ve remained unaware of without the solitude and conflict and pressures of the last 10 years or so. … But I can’t tell if that’s a good or bad thing at times.

I don’t have very many friends; sometimes it’s because I’ve preferred to keep to myself, and sometimes it’s because I’ve tried to look for someone I can connect to, really connect to, and found no one. … It’s the same with D. Most of the time, it’s just us. All of you aren’t here, and neither are his family. Having the beliefs and personalities that we do makes finding friends (well, physical ones as opposed to online ones) hard; and until recently, we couldn’t even find a church we could fit into.

All those things have made life difficult. … It’s worst when we have a fight because I have nowhere to go. I can’t come and spend time with you or our family, cool down, get some distance and perspective or advice; there’s no one I can really trust that way. I don’t have the comfort/luxury of that fallback as many grieved wives do. … Heck, I can’t even visit you for the sake of it when nothing’s wrong. Most of the time I just end up taking a walk (or several) around the block, and that has to suffice.

But that’s how it is. … At least it forces us to work things out and do what we can because we really only have each other. That’s how I come to terms with it.

… But basically, the life I’m living now is far different to the one everyone (including myself) envisioned for me. And it’s not the worst life… but sometimes it’s made me feel quite lost. Like I got off the track somewhere and have no idea how to get back on it or where to go from here. I’ve tried to make the best of things within the confines of what I can manage especially with my internal state, but on the whole I do feel like I’ve failed my potential, and my own expectations.

It’s pretty demoralising.

And it’s probably what’s made it harder for me not to look back. I want the life I had and the life that I could’ve had building upon that, because I knew where I stood and who I was in that life. I had some idea what kind of purpose I could serve; I knew what I was good at, was doing it, was happy doing it, and could see a future for myself in it.

Here – none of that’s factored in the picture. Few of my natural abilities have been called for; few of my best skills have been put to use; few of the opportunities I have been, or could be interested in have gone my way or borne fruit. It’s like the life I could have, or want to have, has been kept out of my reach… or I don’t know how to reach it.

Sometimes, that’s what’s made me feel robbed. Other times, I wonder if it means there’s actually something wrong with me, just I never realised it.

And other times still, I wonder if it’s all my fault. … I wonder if I’d done something different, been braver or more on to things at the time, then all this might’ve been avoided, cut short, or steered in a different direction somehow. I wonder if all this is happening because I simply didn’t realise how much power I had to change things, so I let them happen. Right under my nose.

… Then my rational side kicks in, and says to me: if you’re in any way responsible for all this, then how much more responsible are your parents supposed to be for their decisions and stubbornness, for their own spirituality and the part it played in setting all this in motion? … And a tug-of-war commences between the two factions where, in my mind, I know better; but in my heart – I continue to feel a sense of guilt/inadequacy.

It’s never really resolved. Because resolving it would require input – real, honest input – from you.

… What’s it like for you where you are? Do you struggle to acclimate, to fit in like I do? How successfully have you integrated and managed to make a life for yourself there? There’s a part of me that thinks you must enjoy it at least on some level; you always liked doing things on your terms – having a routine, taking care of yourself. You were like that from your youth, if your journal is anything to go by.

I guess you can tell I’m writing this because I wish I could talk to you, not because I’m mad at you (I think most of that came out over the last 3 letters). But I don’t know how much longer I’ll go on for… there’s only so much you can say in these things. Only so much you can express before it becomes entangling rather than cathartic.

So I don’t know if I’ll write any more to you after this letter… but if I were to say a few last things to you, here’s what they’d be.

… There’s one more part of me that’s learned that God’s plans are different to ours. His priorities can be radically at odds with what we want, His programme completely counter-intuitive; and ultimately, I’ve come to believe He’s done all this – allowed everything that’s happened to us, that’s caused me so much pain – for good, because He cares for me and doesn’t want to let my natural state and personal inclinations lead me to destruction, or thwart the better destiny that I could have, in Him. … As strange as it may sound, I believe He cares for us and has a plan for our redemption, even if it involves all the loss and evil we’ve endured.

Following Him in the face of this can be really hard. But I don’t really have a choice. It’s this, or be driven to complete despair. … There’re times I get so close, I’m basically teetering on the edge of the abyss; but still I hold on because God’s promised me certain things, and even though every year that passes renders it more and more unlikely in my human estimation, I have to believe that He keeps His promises.

The time we’ve lost, the life that was stolen from us, the relationship we never had but could yet be – they’re all things that I trust Him for, because one of His chief characteristics is that He redeems. Without Him, I would have no hope. And it’s for this reason that I’m desperate for you to come to Him yourself, because when I look at your situation now, Dad… there is no hope.

And thus far, I haven’t really told you why I personally prefer God to the spirits we worshipped, but I’m going to unburden myself of that now, too.

The spirits – I don’t know if you remember it, but I do – seldom gave me a straight answer to the questions that were most important to me, or which, objectively speaking, held the most significant theological implications. They had a tendency to evade, keep things secret, make jokes, change the subject. They told me I asked too many questions. And they always left me with the feeling that they weren’t refusing to give me answers because I somehow wasn’t ready for it, or that it was better for me not to know, or that I wouldn’t understand. It was because they couldn’t answer… or they knew that answering honestly would reveal major holes in the logic and narrative of Taoist belief. And this was something I sensed even before I became a Christian. They said things which were contradictory, which I later discovered were outright lies anyway in many cases, and they tended to use knowledge as a means of control, whether it was through sharing or withholding it.

God doesn’t do these things. He’s the opposite. He doesn’t play games. He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t make a mystery of things for the sake of being mysterious; He doesn’t sidestep or mock or make you feel ridiculous/contemptible just because you don’t get something. Typically, He likes that I ask questions, and He loves the fact I care about the truth. And even when He doesn’t give an answer, or answer straightaway, you never feel like He’s fobbing you off, or keeping things from you out of some secret, hidden inadequacy or ulterior motive. You get the sense that His eyes are still fixed on you, that He’s giving you His proper attention nonetheless, and that He will, one day, reveal what you want to know – it’s just a matter of time, not willingness – and you’ll see everything as you ought.

With God, knowledge is for healing people and setting them free. And that’s one of the things I’ve found to be most satisfying about having a relationship with Him. There’s no darkness there. No slyness, no cynicism, no derision. No twisting away from the light, or any attempts to bring light. … No uncleanness. His truth holds a perfection that I cannot fully apprehend, but which touches my life in the most practical and personal ways, and in its light, the universe, people, life – everything makes sense.

So the only logical conclusion for me to make is that if He’s promised me something, I have to hold on. And as a result, I’ve had this notion sometimes that I should try to live in a way that honours a yet unfulfilled future as if it were a present reality. … And the way it manifests with you is that I ask myself, if Dad were a man to whom ethics and truth mattered, what would make him proud? If he had God in his life and things between us were good, what kind of person would he want me to be? And I try to be like that.

I’m woefully far from perfect; most of the time I fall terribly short. … But that’s part of my thinking because it’s been a part of my faith for a long time that one day, you will be that man – the father who values a child knowing the things that matter, to whom I can look up, who will actually be glad when I make a godly choice.

I’m like this because I want you to know one day, when you’ve repented and look back… inevitably, with regret… you don’t have to have this weighing on your conscience at least: you don’t have to contend with the notion you failed completely as a father (… at least, not with me), because I believed in you and did try to live in a way that would honour your best self. Your future self.

 

… So, as a missionary named Jim Elliot once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Truth – real truth, absolute and pure – is imperishable. And if we give what we cannot keep – our time, our lives, our energies, our fortunes – to obtain it, then we’ve made a good choice. … Thus far you’ve exchanged so much for something you cannot keep – which you’ve already lost, anyway – will you consider making a different choice?

I’m waiting. God is waiting.

 

Love and tears,
Your daughter.

Dear Dad: III


… I’ve been thinking about what I said to you in my last letter. And if I were to take my own feelings out of the equation and look at things objectively, I would see – I have seen, in my calmer moments – that you’re also emotionally and existentially invested in your belief. That’s another important reason you keep shutting the door in my face.

So objectively speaking, it’s not entirely fair for me to be upset over the fact I’m not as important to you as the deity you worship… ’cause if the question were put to me, I know I would have to choose God over you, and Mom, and everyone else too.

But considering how you reacted to my conversion, I don’t see how I could avoid feeling the way I do either. Growing up, I listened to you and Mom and our relatives talking about how Christianity is an undesirable, frightening religion because it demands exclusive loyalty from its followers. Because it turns people against their families and roots. So to see you and Mom acting the way you have – betraying us, defending the medium and justifying the things you’ve done (even if you try to cast it in a different light) – strikes me as supremely ironic. … And frightening, if you ask our relatives. They’re in fear when they think about what your beliefs have done to you; my brother is afraid the same thing’s going to happen to him.

Funnily enough, I haven’t had this effect on them. But do you see that you’re actually no different to the Christians whom you’ve derided and disapproved of in this regard? … That plus the fact I know what your god really is – I compare myself to that, and I can’t fathom you making the choice which you have.

That’s why I’m angry and feel rejected. Any way you slice it, you prefer a devil to me. Even if that’s not how you see it.

If I’m to be rejected, I’d rather it were for something better, Dad. Not worse. Because it’s the only way all this hurt and rigmarole could possibly be worthwhile. So I guess the whole question boils back down to a matter of truth. … What is the truth, and are you willing to accept it if what you believe turns out not to be it?

When it comes to that, I believe your pride does play a major part in your recalcitrance.

You’re a difficult man. And I’ve seen you glory in it, because you’ve come to take it as a sign that you’re able to see things other people don’t (and for at least some of the time in your life, that’s been true… which has unfortunately reinforced your behaviour). That’s where your self-justification began. But let’s think about this.

You said to me once that the god you worship is an immortal angel, someone who actually serves the Supreme God in heaven. Someone who has power enough to be considered a god, and basically is a god – a lesser god, one of many (you have no idea how aptly that describes a certain figure in the Bible, by the way). You tried to posit therefore that we’re all on the same side, that my God and your god aren’t opposed.

Now I don’t know if you came up with that yourself in your hours of musing or whether it’s what he told you, but seriously Dad?

If that were true, why the upheaval when I became a Christian? Why the need to label me a traitor? Why was I branded an ingrate and a disgrace? … If all I did was graduate from worshipping a lesser god to the Supreme God, I should’ve been patted on the back and congratulated – not the opposite.

Why the desperate attempts to come between D and I? Why the deliberate, hurtful driving of a wedge between you and Mom and myself as well? Why all the disapprobation and disappointment in me?

Was it all for nothing? Some pointless, perverse, meaningless exercise?

… You said that you all acted the way you did because you were worried for me. But if that was really the case, why were you worried at all? If your god served my God and he truly knew the future like he claimed, he should’ve known there was nothing to worry about. Everything that happened, everything he said and did to try to coerce/dissuade me from my choices should’ve been unnecessary. None of it would’ve been called for – unless I was actually doing something he considered subversive and undesirable.

See, none of it adds up. You practised law. You tried criminal cases. This should all be obvious to you. You’d see it if you only let yourself. But you won’t, because as I said, the implications are terrifying. You have so much invested in this, so much to lose: all that belief and dedication, all that money, all that time – DECADES of your life – all those promises that’ve been made to you: you’d rather cover your eyes with a delusion.

… The only way you’re going to come out of this, Dad, is if the truth becomes more important to you than anything else in the world. That’s how I came to Him. Regardless of the personal relationship I myself also had with the spirits; regardless of the fact I was dedicated to 2 of them; regardless of the awareness I would effectively be turning my back on all the beliefs I’d been raised to follow; regardless of the knowledge there’d be a rift between me and everyone else in our family and extended family from that point; regardless of all the miracles and displays of power I’d witnessed over the years; regardless of the fact you and Mom would brand me fool, traitor and infidel – I did it. And I have never looked back.

See, you always said that I’ve seen too much, so I should know better. Well you’re right. I’ve seen a lot. I had my eyes open; I was fully aware of what I was turning away from. I knew exactly what I would lose. But you’re wrong to think that means I should’ve known better than to be a Christian. … I became one precisely because I did know better.

You thought my conversion was reactionary, a juvenile attempt to hit back over the humiliation I got for first getting involved with D. But you’re wrong. I did it because I realised that a god who would lie about me and to me couldn’t be trusted – especially if he was lying to stop me from praying to a God who actually claimed to be the truth. I did it because the truth means more to me than power, or the patronage of a false god no matter how supposedly redoubtable (and for all their redoubtability, I guarantee you they will shrink at the name of Jesus because all authority in heaven and earth has actually been given to Him – you can test this if you don’t believe me). I did it because it was the only way for me to find the truth of how I’m actually supposed to live and think. Because I desire real salvation, not a counterfeit.

You and Mom planted the seeds for the ability to make those decisions in me. And now you have to do the same. You had a hard start to life and many challenges to surmount. You’re used to doing and seeing things your way. But that doesn’t mean your way is always right, Dad. You have to be able to admit when it’s not.

A lot of people have tried to tell you the truth over the years, not just me. But you’ve never listened. Jesus said, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God. … Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. … When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me. … If I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.”

… Does that sting? Or are you so deep in denial that you don’t think those words actually have anything to do with you?

The fact you think Jesus is just one of many faces that God has presented to humanity is erroneous, Dad – you’d know this if you just looked at what I had to go through when I wanted to become a Christian. The truth does not contradict itself. A house divided cannot stand. So if your god tried so hard to stop me from following Him, and has a habit of mocking Christians in general – if your own beliefs about God contradict what He’s clearly declared about Himself – don’t you see how illogical your premise is? Don’t you see what a big problem you have on your hands?

Think, Dad. Think, and admit that you could be wrong! It may be really hard for you to make a U-turn now, but it’ll be far harder at the end of your life – if you were to discover then that you were wrong and will have to face the consequences – when you could’ve done something to change it now.

Your god and mine are NOT on the same side. They are opposed to each other – fundamentally, morally and by nature enemies. My God has made this CLEAR if yours hasn’t. He has spoken, if you will only hear it! … And if you were to ring again… I think this might be the one thing I would try hardest to disabuse you of, agonising as it will be because of the reaction I expect to get from you yet again.

… Remember the prophecy in Isaiah 30 that I shared with you? Did you read it at all? Or did you start, then stop because you thought it was nonsense? … Did you make it to the end, then decide to ignore it? Or did you nullify its message with a willful reinterpretation? Because those words are either true, or they aren’t. And if they aren’t, how do you account for the uncannily accurate, practically blow-by-blow description of what happened to us? But if they are… why do you harden your heart?

… You know, I started this letter in a relatively calm frame of mind. But now that I’m thinking of it, the spectre of your stubbornness has come up before me yet again, and it makes me so – angry. It makes me so angry, to think of you telling me that all this essentially happened because of me; and then you try to reassure me that you don’t blame me for what happened. It makes me so angry to think of the few times you tried to say you were sorry during the early years after our home first collapsed; and then you turn around now and try to claim that things pretty much worked out for me in the end anyway. It eats at me that you’d say you’re sorry for how we’ve all been affected; but then slip in the caveat that it wasn’t really your fault, and that what happened to my sister wasn’t really Mom’s fault either.

Do you know what all those 180s mean? It means you’re chronically incapable of taking any responsibility. You’d rather buy into the lie that fate is cruel and I’m some unlucky, unsuspecting victim, and you’re the martyr. … Why? Does it make you feel better? Does it make you feel better to pawn the fruit of your mistakes off on your daughter? To lay this whole mess on me, chalk it up to the fact I was actually born, and then act magnanimously toward me?

… What do you mean things have worked out for me? I’ve been here, all this time, alone in a country and culture I struggle to assimiliate into, with the life I knew and my inheritance stolen from me and my future taking a hard left down a road I never anticipated; having to eke out something else for the last 10 years without your presence, guidance or support (in fact, with you providing the very opposite in the form of more pain and trauma and grief) and you’re saying things worked out for me? … My husband sheds tears sometimes at the thought of the pain he’s seen me in, and the changes in my personality. … So how dare you suggest it? How dare you try to rewrite the fact of my struggles, and use it to salve your conscience?

Your apologies are shams. Extracted from you like a bad tooth from an intractable socket. You may feel some sort of obligation, some vague, murky pressure at the back of your mind to offer them, but underneath it all you think it’s just because people are stupid and unreasonable and you actually shouldn’t have to. That if we understood, you’d somehow turn out to be a misunderstood hero.

It fills me with RAGE. I am so angry at you, and the fact I can’t say any of this to you – that you’ll reject it, deny it and refuse to let me finish – makes it worse, because I also feel so helpless. … You know few things mess up a person more than that combination. Rage and helplessness. It warps your sense of reality; and years and years of it will chip away at your self-estimation. Your ability to cope. Your basic confidence in your own capability to tell which way is up and what’s what in life so that you can face what it throws at you. And that’s what you’ve wrought. That’s where your bad decisions, your stubbornness and your false religion, have ultimately led.

You think that I’m doing fine, that I’m happy? No. There’re times when I am, but it’s in spite of what you’ve done, not because of it. I’m alive and functioning not because you purchased my future with your fortune, but because the grace of God surrounds me. It has cushioned me during the worst times of my life; comforted me, convicted me, upheld me, led me, protected me; drawn me continually on when all I wanted was to give up, shut down and give in to my worst instincts – kept me where I should’ve broken apart. But apart from that, your supposed sacrifice didn’t buy what it was supposed to. You spent all that money and went through all this so your relationship with me would be destroyed, and I – we, everyone who possesses a connection to you – would end up damaged. Your mistakes have brought this tragedy on us, and the fact you can’t make a simple, straightforward, unqualified, sincere apology after all this time shows how devastatingly deluded and deep in denial you still are.

You know I… I don’t know how to recover from this, Dad. I don’t. I wish I did. Most days I do what’s in front of me to do, and I get by. I don’t think about the things that give me grief. But they’re always there, somewhere, hovering in the background. There’s no changing it. It’s the reality I’ve lived with for years: there’s a piece of my heart that’s perpetually missing – snatched away, and nothing I do or tell myself can conjure up a replacement, or make it all right… make me feel like it doesn’t actually matter, and everything’s fine.

I can’t deny what is, or fool myself, or will a broken reality into wholeness. And I could slip so easily back into feeling helpless if I thought about it, because you’re not actually reading this right now. … I have to focus on the fact that this exercise is to help me, first and foremost, by giving me an outlet to express these things that I precisely can’t convey to you because I’m so sure that it’ll result in blowback. More punishment. More pain.

… Though maybe I’m wrong. … Maybe if I told you all this, you’d surprise me. But nothing in our past interactions has given me any reason to hope for such a thing. … Maybe the very fact I even consider such an outcome possible just shows how incorrigibly naïve I still am.

Or, maybe when I’ve got all my thoughts down, this will change. … Maybe I’ll find the courage to try again. To communicate, and take another run at the risk of rejection.

I don’t know. But for now, at least, this is like letting poison out of a wound, and the relief is tangible.

Quiet. But real.

 

 

… You know, I don’t know what’s going to happen Dad. Sometimes the thought itself is enough to drive me crazy. … But I know this:

He will be very gracious to you at the sound of your cry;
When He hears it, He will answer you.
And though the Lord gives you
The bread of adversity and the water of affliction,
Yet your teachers will not be moved into a corner anymore,
But your eyes shall see your teachers.
Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying,
“This is the way, walk in it,”
Whenever you turn to the right hand
Or whenever you turn to the left.
You will also defile the covering of your images of silver,
And the ornament of your molded images of gold.
You will throw them away as an unclean thing;
You will say to them, “Get away!” …

Moreover the light of the moon will be as the light of the sun,
And the light of the sun will be sevenfold,
As the light of seven days,
In the day that the Lord binds up the bruise of His people
And heals the stroke of their wound.

That is the promise of God. Please read it if you haven’t; and read it again. Read it with humility, receptivity, honesty… read it without pride, self-justification, preconceptions, misconceptions or illusions.

Hear what it has to say to you, plain and simple. Your best days aren’t behind you Dad; they’re ahead. There may not be that many of them in comparison to the first half of your life because of how long you’ve delayed, but they are – there, for the taking. Waiting only to be activated at the sound of your cry to Him. … That’s a fact.

It’s why I continue to have hope. And I hope you do it. I hope you cry to Him soon.

 

… With love and tears,
Your daughter.

Dear Dad: II


… When D’s cellphone rings, my heart rate spikes. Panic wells up in me like heartburn, and my brain scrambles to make a decision: if it’s you, what do I do? Pick up? Let it ring? If it’s Mom, it’s worse. What does she want? What would I say? I don’t want to pick up. Am I even capable of talking to her normally? Then I think, what if it’s our relatives calling with some other bad news? More bad news? … What could it be? What is it now?!

All these things go through me in a flash, but at the same time, it feels like one long awful interminable moment. I agonise, churn, and teeter with dread and indecision until D tells me that it’s not you, or her, or them. Then I have to come back down, and take a little time to recover.

I can’t help it. It’s all a reflex. … The result of trauma.

Nothing good ever comes of picking up the phone. Nothing good ever comes of hearing from any of you. Not since the day Mom first called to tell me not to go home. That’s what the last 10 years have taught me. And when the phone rings, my brain cells bathe themselves in a slaver of anxiety like teeth in the jaws of a Pavlovian dog.

It bites.

So I’m glad you haven’t called often the last few years. I’m glad I haven’t heard from Mom at all. It’s completely at odds with the fact I love and miss you both, but there it is. Maybe it’s cowardliness… sometimes when I’ve tried to talk to people about it, I feel like that’s how it comes off. That it’s what they see. I don’t know. I mean, I’m not actually afraid of the both of you, but I don’t want to speak to you either – because I know that I’ll end up taking the brunt of it emotionally.

… It’s not you I fear and dislike. It’s the effect of talking to you.

If I do, I know that it’ll make things worse – the pain, the rejection, the alarming consciousness of estrangement, the heartbreak over your condition. The frustration. It takes me days, if not weeks, to recover. And the after-effects can linger for months. Indefinitely.

I can’t put myself through it over and over. It’s too hard. So unless there’s going to be a substantial change in how we interact, I just – can’t. I don’t know how.

… Does that make me a coward?

I could pray for God to help me, but the fact is, He doesn’t take grief away. Not most of the time. It’s one of the things I find difficult about having a relationship with Him. He wants me to walk through it with Him, not around it. And at first, that’s what I did. But after 10-15 years… it just seems easier to spare myself and avoid contact because nothing actually comes of us talking anyway. If we’re lucky, it ends in a stalemate, unspoken or otherwise. If we’re not, things between us actually get worse.

You know how I said in my last letter that I’m not as important to you as the deity you worship? Well, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that and I’ve concluded… it’s not actually the whole truth.

If you get right down to it, the truth is… I’m simply not as important to you as you are to yourself. And the same goes for Mom.

That’s what lies at the bottom of all this. It’s why you won’t listen to me. Why you insist on continuing in your religious beliefs and arguing with me about mine. Why you’ve never let me question you or speak my mind. It’s because of your pride. … You can say that you did what you did for me, that love is what led you to agree to your wretched bargain with your god. But the fact is, your ego is bound up in your belief that you’ve found the truth, and everything I believe, everything I have to say to you is diametrically opposed to that. It affronts you, and until you decide that your ego is not a valid measure or guarantor of the truth, we will have nothing truly meaningful to say to each other. We will never be able to make any real headway in our interactions; we will never be able to converse honestly; and we will never have a deep or healthy relationship.

… That, in a nutshell, is really why I can’t talk to you.

How do you talk to someone you don’t respect? Whom you don’t intrinsically regard as your moral equal? Whose opinions you believe by default cannot be correct? You can’t. And every time you try, all I sense from you is a wall. You’re sitting on top of it looking down at me, much as you do with most other people, and refuse to see that unless you come down from there and meet me not as your child – or a child – but a grown up, rational human being who can, and wants to, have a real conversation with you where both parties are vulnerable to being appealed to and changed by the other – I can never freely or unreservedly participate. All it will do is hurt me.

… Do you remember the night you found out I’d become a Christian, I asked you a question: do you want a discussion or do you just want me to listen to you? Your response was, “I want you to listen to me.” And that has never changed. For 15 years, it hasn’t changed.

Do you really think you can go the rest of your life that way? That you can ignore me or have that one-sided dynamic going between us till the day you die?

… It confounds me, that you’ve always been so proud of me – so able to recognise that you have, at least to some extent, a gifted and intelligent child, and so quick to laud the fact to others – yet when it comes to the most important issues of your life, you won’t take the time to seriously listen and consider what I have to say.

Do you know what that tells me? It tells me that I’m acceptable to you only on your terms. … I can win awards, but I can’t give you counsel. I can work for your approval, but not hold you accountable. I may criticise those in whom you’re already able to recognise flaws, but not remonstrate with you. … I can only make you proud, but not help you to be humble.

It’s completely different to the kind of relationship I have with God.

… Over the years, He’s been teaching me to relate to Him as my Father, and even though it’s hard to do and I still don’t really get it (as I said, my relationship with you has affected how I perceive and relate to Him, because you’re the only other father I’ve ever known) – I have at least come to recognise that He’s essentially different in the way He treats me. I mean, if there was anyone who had the right to do it the way you have, it’s Him – because He’s God. He doesn’t require counsel, or correction, or accountability. He knows everything, has all the answers and doesn’t have to put up with anybody questioning or criticising Him.

But you know… He doesn’t do that. He doesn’t hold my finiteness against me. He listens, answers when He thinks I need an answer (or am in the state to hear it), and is very patient with me. He’s attentive and kind. … There’re times I sense disapproval from Him, and apart from the occasions I know it’s because I’ve done something wrong, there’re other times I wonder if it’s because my relationship with you and Mom has coloured my perception – but that aside, God doesn’t reject me. He doesn’t cast me aside. And apart from my own struggles to believe that He loves and delights in me the way some people have said He does, we have a 2-way relationship. … Or at least, as much of a 2-way relationship as is possible between a weak, imperfect human being and an omnipotent, omniscient God.

But you see – the point is we do have a 2-way relationship. And the only reason that’s possible – the only way it could be possible at all – is because He wants it, and is willing to engage in it with me, warts and all. And that tells me something. … It tells me that He has genuine regard for me; that I mean something to Him beyond my inadequacies and His utter superiority. That He genuinely cares to know and interact with me as a person, and whether He has all the power/answers in the relationship or not has nothing whatsoever to do with it – is in fact quite beside the point.

… Now, I don’t expect you to be like God. But I also know, at the same time, that there’s something you can learn from Him in this regard… that there’s a different way to be a father that doesn’t require perfection or divinity, but which is better suited to the role than what you’ve shown thus far.

So it pains me – and you don’t know how much it pains me, to have to recognise this and say it out loud – but your pride in me, ultimately, is superficial.

… I don’t want that. I want you to accept and interact with me as a whole person.

And again, it brings up the question: if you can’t trust and listen to someone who wants this because they love you – because they want to be able to tell you the truth when you need to hear it, not because they want to control you or make you feel bad about yourself but because they believe in you and have your best interests at heart – who else is left to you?

… But you know, it just occurred to me that in a strange way, this is what it was like with God, too, with you. … You had this treasure within your grasp but never knew it for what it was. If you’d had a little more faith and a little more perseverance, it would’ve yielded so many good things to you. … But for all intents and purposes, you despised it. Turned away from it. Then you tried to redefine it according to your terms, so you could believe that you were still somehow in touch with it. … And you’re making the same mistake again with your own child, whom He blessed you with.

And just so we’re clear, I’m not saying this to toot my own horn ok – what I’m trying to say is, if you’re not careful, your life will be a story of that man who threw away every good thing he had because of his pride. … It’s an old story, and a perennial one. And it’s hard for me to see you fit so neatly into a cautionary trope.

And again, I’m not saying this because I know everything or have all the answers. But you should know that I made it a personal policy a long time ago not to speak about something unless I have a reasonable degree of certainty that I know something about it – that I’m likely correct or have a valid point to make. So if I want to talk to you about this – if I’m actually clamouring and desperate for you to open your ears and hear me – you should know that it’s important.

… I’ve thought about what you were like on our last call, Dad. I remember it quite clearly. And from what I could hear… you’re coming apart. Years of exile, being all alone and unable to talk about the deepest things in your heart, having no one among your loved ones to listen or understand or accept what you have to say, will do that to you. I know.

You’re coming up against yourself, Dad. When there’s nobody else around, that’s all you’re faced with. But you’re still refusing to yield to the process. You’re turning it all outward instead, looking for people and things to argue with, ways to make you feel better about yourself, looking to make others agree or acquiesce to your view, still. But it’s getting harder, isn’t it? … It will continue to get harder. And you will look more determinedly for somewhere to lay the blame. Cast your eyes more fixedly away from yourself. You’ll spend a lot of time thinking about how hard and unfair life has been for you. Try even more to act like nothing’s really wrong. Insist again that none of these things that’ve happened are really your or Mom’s fault. … But it’ll only make things worse. You mayn’t think so, but that’s what’s going to happen because reality isn’t going to bend itself to your will. And the reality is, you’re as much responsible for how your life is now as others have been. And if you try to bury this truth or distract from it, you will suffer even more. Your redemption will elude you even further. Your dead and mangled conscience will haunt you even more loudly from its grave. … God forbid, your stubbornness will end up destroying you.

It’s been 10 years, Dad. How much longer are you going to sit in denial and stew in self-justification? For how much longer are you going to wallow in your pride and hold out for a change that will never come without the auspices of the one true God?

… Will you simply hold my silence against me, and use that as a pretext for proving that it’s always other people who don’t know better?

Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” So you know, even if I – if everyone – were to magically change our minds overnight and completely agree with you about everything, it will avail nothing Dad. You know that right? … You will only get your life and self-respect back, and the things you always truly wanted, deep down – you will only come fully and irrevocably into your own – if you recognise and admit the truth. It’s the only thing that will save you. And there is only one source of truth in the universe – but if you can’t admit this, at least please start by admitting that you’ve gone to the wrong source!

… I’d beg you. My instinct is to beg you. But I know that it’ll achieve nothing. It’s a wall I’ve run up against over and over, both during our interactions and in my own mind. And it’s the bitterest pill in the world to swallow. … You have to do this yourself. Because you want to. Out of your own conviction.

God will settle for nothing less.

… But I’ll leave you with one last thing before I end this missive. Jesus also said, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life on account of Me will find it. For what will a person be benefited if he gains the whole world but forfeits his life?”

Don’t keep holding on to yourself, Dad. There’s something better. Something true. Something so much more right. Something you’ll always regret refusing if you try to keep this world that you’ve constructed for yourself intact. … Can’t you see that it’s already in ruins? Don’t forfeit your future for something that’s already broken. … You’re smarter than that. You have to be. For your own sake, and for all our sakes.

Please.

 

… With love and tears,
Your daughter.

Dear Dad: I

 

… I had what you might call an epiphany recently. I was thinking about something I said in my last blog post, that I’m still struggling with certain things after 10 years, and it occurred to me that maybe it’s because I’ve never been able to talk to you.

Human beings need communication. Resolution. An honest connection, especially with the people who matter to them. And that’s something I don’t have… never got because I was never allowed to speak to you or Mom frankly about the things that matter to me.

I don’t know if you’ll ever read this… I’ve had what feels like a vain hope for a long time that one day, when things mend between us, maybe I’ll be able to show you this blog and let you hear my side of the story… so you know how things were for me at my end, and how I understand what happened to us (I don’t know how you’ll react; I’m inclined to think you’ll be angry and embarrassed, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it I guess – if we ever get there, this’ll be a good dilemma, so I’m choosing not to worry about it).

By writing this, I’m not saying that I think it’ll never happen now… but I realised that since becoming a Christian, I’ve accumulated 15 years of thoughts and feelings that I could never express because you didn’t want to hear them (as far as I can tell, you still don’t). And I realised that maybe, regardless of what happens in the future or whether you ever read any of this, I need to say them as if you are listening – so I can actually let them out and not leave them churning around endlessly inside me, keeping me stuck.

I don’t know how many of these I’ll end up writing. I might write to Mom too. But when the idea came to me, it felt right. Really right. Like I hit on something I actually need to do, just I wasn’t aware of it. So here I am.

… There’re so many things I could say to you. That I want to say. We were never close the way some families are – open and demonstrative and affectionate. But in another way, ours is one of the most tightly knit families I’ve ever seen… there’s no way we could’ve weathered what we’ve weathered and still emerged with such a strong sense of being each other’s flesh and blood otherwise. And it wouldn’t hurt so much. It wouldn’t be so hard. I wouldn’t think of you and miss you all as often and instinctively as I do.

That’s the main thing I struggle with. Following God can be so hard. He wants me to give up what’s most important in the world to me – and I don’t mean consciously important, I mean important as in foundational and essential to your being. A person might not be aware of the air when they’re breathing because it’s such a natural part of being alive, but when it’s gone – you sure as heck know it.

And that’s where our paths essentially diverge. … The Taoist gods offered you a way to keep what was most important to you when they spoke to you about me all those years ago. They inflamed and indulged your attachment to something that was never meant for you to keep, over which you actually had no control (or the right to control) – they offered you the power to thwart fate, when the truth is, no man can escape what has truly been ordained from above. And in the pursuit of that, they got you to betray the very thing you were trying to save. They said you had to compromise yourself, sacrifice yourself, destroy yourself to do it. But not only will you not be able to keep that which you tried to save… you’ll end up with nothing. You have ended up with nothing.

God has done the opposite with me. He’s asked me to give up what’s most important to me, and relegate my earthly attachment for a heavenly one. He hasn’t catered to it because He knows that it’s a weakness in my heart, a doorway to undermining my judgement and character as it has been for everyone in our family. And He’s taken all power over the situation out of my hands so that I’ll learn to trust that He is all-powerful and all-sufficient. That I’m not to strive to save or hold on to that which doesn’t actually belong to me (and certainly not through methods that will harm myself or others). And He has promised that I will get it back – if I first hand it over to Him so that He can give it back to me, redeemed.

You see, there’s a right way and a wrong way to love something. And only a truly good God will care about the difference.

I know you don’t want to hear this. I know you don’t see it this way at all. I know you think it’s nonsense, and that I don’t have a clue. … And I know that if you were to entertain what I’m saying, the implications are devastating.

I also know that I can’t make you listen. I can’t get you to believe me. You have no idea how much pain that causes me. How much frustration. … You know I haven’t asked you for much over the years Dad. You gave me enough, more than a lot of children get to have growing up. But the one thing I’ve wanted more than anything else, the one thing I would ask above all, you’ve denied me. Repeatedly and adamantly. You don’t know what kind of effect that has on a child – the overwhelming sense of rejection it engenders. Not only has it harmed our relationship, it’s led me to conflate your hardheartedness with God’s firmness. Because when I pray and He withholds the answer, I see you. I see Mom. I see the both of you in your utter disregard for my feelings and your stubborn, uncaring attitude towards shutting me out.

But that doesn’t change the truth. And the truth is, look at what’s happened to us. Look at everything we’ve lost and all the people we’ve hurt. Do you honestly think the misery and bereavement we’re suffering is all the salvation a supposedly powerful god is capable of? Is this all the help you can expect? Endlessly cheating, scrounging, hiding, evading responsibility and lying to yourself – do you honestly think these are signs that you’re following the truth?

You say that God will lie if it suits His purpose. The only reason you say that is because you worship a god who lies. A god who has instructed you to lie, who condones and justifies it, who’s cauterized your conscience against it. But think about it Dad. A god who has to resort to these measures – a god who tells his followers that they must at times rely on deception to achieve their ends – cannot be the truth, for if his ways are not as powerful as the truth – if he must work against it or in spite of it to get what he wants – then he is not its master. What’s worse, you’ve listened to this pretender for so long, you can’t even conceive of a God who does not, needs not, and cannot lie: a God who is truly noble and just and honorable and powerful. The concept is so absurd to you that you tell me I must doubt Him – He who has never lied to me – when you, yourself, hold absolute, unquestioning faith and loyalty in a deity whom you know is completely comfortable with lying.

How did you end up here? People always say that a mistress cannot trust the man who leaves his wife for her, because sooner or later he will do the same to her. If your god lies to people and tells you to lie, what makes you think he won’t – hasn’t – lied to you? … Can you even consider the possibility? Or does the mere suggestion of it perturb you too much?

You’ve said a few things to me about God, Christianity and the Bible over the years. Things that I now know, which I would testify to you, are untrue, if you would only listen. You were wrong, Dad. So – wrong. … I don’t know what happened to turn you away from God in your youth, but it was the biggest mistake of your life. I’ve had my struggles and personal conflict regarding His intentions over the years because of how hard life has been, but one thing has always remained clear in my mind: coming to Him was the smartest, truest, best thing I ever did. In a life full of mess-ups and failures, it’s the one move I know I definitely got right.

And you know what? I like to think that it’s because of qualities I inherited from you. I got your looks, and God knows I have your weaknesses. But I also have your strengths. And Mom’s. You gave me an instinct for reasoning, the natural desire to figure things out, the backbone and independence to insist on finding my own way. And I did. Oh, you don’t know the things I’ve learned from and about God the last 15 years – things I would share joyfully and unreservedly with you, Mom, and the rest of our family if you only wanted it… the one great treasure I have to offer after 10 years of estrangement, and a lifetime of black-sheephood.

I’ve finally learned how to recognise what the truth really looks like, Dad. And it’s the best, most important gift any human being could hope to possess. It doesn’t mean that I know everything or have all the answers, but I can tell now when something belongs to the truth. I can recognise it because He’s renewed my mind, reshaped my sensibilities so I have an affinity for what’s true – made truth my friend and my kin. You see, when you have a relationship with God, He changes you from the inside out. It’s not just a matter of listening to His instructions and doing what He tells you; you become like Him in your character and perspective. And since He is the truth, the closer you get to Him, the more natural truth becomes to you.

And you know what else? You always said that Christians are at a terrible disadvantage because they can’t see or hear their God, whereas Taoists can. But that’s not true. If you want to have a 2-way interaction with your god, you can only do it at a séance. You have to make an appointment, and the medium has to be there – without that middleman, you’re as cut off from your deity as you suppose Christians to be – so contact is only temporary and limited. But when a person becomes a Christian, God’s Spirit comes and dwells within them. He never leaves them. So I mayn’t see God, but I can hear Him and feel Him. He lives with me, inside me, and any time I want, I can talk to Him and have Him talk back. My access to Him is 24/7.

Do you know what it’s like to enjoy private, reciprocal, spontaneous communication with the Creator of all things Himself? … I imagine not. It’s something that has to be experienced.

And my concern is that you’ll never get to have that experience for yourself, Dad, because it’s not where your heart is. You don’t want the truth. You don’t want God. You say you do, and you may even think that you do – but what you really want is something else. You want power, a way to justify yourself and the decisions you’ve made so you never have to admit that you had more responsibility over the choices and actions you took in life than your pride and self-image will allow. … You want metaphysical capital, philosophical vindication, cosmic absolution – a way to make others believe what you already do: that nothing is really, truly your fault.

You’ll never get it the way you’ve been going about things. It will be the death of you – literally. Absolution doesn’t come from trying to find ways to justify yourself… it comes from admitting that you need forgiveness and justification from an Authority far higher than yourself; it will only come when you are willing to exercise humility and confess that you’ve made a mess of things – fully, freely and without qualification. And I’m telling you this as your daughter, as someone who loves you, who sees your flaws and sins yet still accepts you and believes in you. … If you can’t trust such a person to tell you the truth when you need to hear it and have your best interests at heart, who else is left to you?

But that’s precisely the problem. You don’t trust me. You’d rather listen to a perverse and perfidious god. Who called me a traitor and told you falsehoods about me. Who mocked me, bullied me, threatened me right in front of you without drawing a word of protest from your lips. Who used me first to get your trust and money, then to hurt and humiliate you when I exercised a freedom which you promised me from childhood would be mine: to follow a faith of my own choosing.

… Do you have any idea how much pain that’s caused me? How much grief? To see our family wrecked, you and Mom turned so upside-down, all this tragedy and destruction in our home – and be completely helpless to do anything about it because you wouldn’t let me speak to you about our situation. Because the thought of receiving any input from me struck you as unhelpful and ridiculous. … Because I’m not as important to you as a liar. A big, fat, scheming manipulator and liar (yes I’m going on the record with it: you’ve been manipulated and lied to – completely and unequivocally; and if you want to know how, you’ll have to ask me).

Sometimes I think you’ll never know. Sometimes I think that even if you could, you’d refuse, because it’d be too hard for you to find out just what it’s like – to see yourself and this whole situation through my eyes. To know the strain of the weight that’s been pressing on my heart all these years. … Though at the same time, if you were to repent and have your eyes opened, I hope for your sake that you never do, either.

… I don’t want you to go through pain, Dad. I don’t want you to suffer. I don’t want you to be put in my shoes just so you’ll understand me or get some kind of payback. I bear you no ill will or malice. I never have. I’ve been extremely hurt and disappointed. Angry. But always I’ve loved you and hoped – prayed – for your greatest good. And I continue to hope, and pray, for it… even as I love you from a distance, and in silence.

I hope you understand this one day. And I hope things will be different the next time we see each other.

… I know that you’re not really reading this right now, but it does help to act as if you are. So… I have to stop for now, but thanks for listening. … I hope you’re doing ok where you are. Write again soon.

 

With love and tears,
Your daughter.

A watch in the night

It’s been unseasonally cold and grey over the last week… as if summer knows its time is coming to a close, so it simply sighed and withdrew quietly into the gloom one night – conceding its place tiredly and without a fight to the encroaching chill of autumn because there’s no point trying to hold off the inevitable. Or to hold on to something it’s going to lose anyway.

A light blush, deepening by the day, has begun to sweep over the apple-green spheres of our grapes. I look at them, standing outside in the wind, and try to let the naïveté of their beauty remind me that a harvest is yet to come… that there’ll be warm, sunny days ahead yet that’ll make me forget what I’m feeling today. Even as I shiver angrily at the early theft of precious life and heat from the world.

But I know that the winds of change are blowing back home too, in Malaysia, and Chinese New Year is basically here. Again. That even though I’ve been both consciously and unconsciously trying to stave it off, a heaviness has been growing in my heart and mind that come April, it will be a full 10 years since my home collapsed and my family broke apart.

… I’ve had a feeling for a while now that this year might turn out to be a hard time for me, though I don’t know how much. Certainly I hope it won’t be too hard; I don’t want to do anything to make it harder. But I can’t help feeling that it probably will be, and that it’ll just get harder as the year goes on.

Probably because of this mood, I started thinking lately about some things I haven’t thought of in quite a while. And it’s painful to realise there’re places in my memory that still feel so close, so near, that are still so fresh and familiar and clear to me – and yet in reality they don’t exist anymore. … Like my home – when I think of it, it feels like it’s still out there somewhere, in some undefined limbo where time has stood still, waiting for me to come back to it sometime… as if I’d only been away on campus for a while, or a long holiday in another country – and when I return, everything will be just as I left it.

Realising that this feeling is just a trick of miscognition causes me a pain which leaves me wondering that I’m as sane as I am. That I haven’t had a complete nuclear meltdown yet at the fact my life, and the lives of people I long for, were horrifically damaged and have yet to recover. That I don’t panic more often at the thought I have no idea what I’m really doing here, or what purpose I could possibly still serve from such a broken, thwarted, bereft position.

Every year it’s hard. Mother’s Days, Father’s Days, birthdays, Chinese New Years, Mid-Autumn Festivals, Christmases… I remember, and get reminded multiple times. My memory stirs; or I go on Facebook and see the pictures other people post – the group photos and smiling faces – I read the status updates about the families and gatherings and good times – imperfect, but relatively intact, lives inundating me one after another – and I ache. Ache hungrily and futilely like a ghost at the window of a ball, watching the dancers whirl by whom it can’t join.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for all the people I see. I wouldn’t wish anything less for them. And most of the time, I focus on trying to make the best of things. On hope, and when I can manage it, gratitude. But it’s been almost 10 years… and even though I’ve tried to quiet it in patience and confidence, with prayer and perspective and faith, there’s a voice inside me that’s gotten louder and louder with the passing of time, even as it’s made its complaint less frequently. And over the last week, it’s been practically screaming. Screaming for something to change, for the walls to move, for the bars to break. Screaming that it won’t – can’t – go on with things the way they are.

The violence of it has unsettled me. Made me feel ashamed that 10 years on, I’m still wrestling with something that refuses to submit, that won’t go quiet, that refuses to accept the portion it’s been given, and just wait.

I can’t keep waiting. I don’t know how much longer I can do it.

And when I think about it, I hear the verses of Swinburne, burning and balming at the same time as only a truth wrapped in poetry can do:

Exile, what of the night? —
The tides and the hours run out,
The seasons of death and of doubt,
The night-watches bitter and sore.
In the quicksands leftward and right
My feet sink down under me;
But I know the scents of the shore
And the broad blown breaths of the sea.

Captives, what of the night? —
It rains outside overhead
Always, a rain that is red,
And our faces are soiled with the rain.
Here in the seasons’ despite
Day-time and night-time are one,
Till the curse of the kings and the chain
Break, and their toils be undone.

High priest, what of the night? —
The night is horrible here
With haggard faces and fear,
Blood, and the burning of fire.
Mine eyes are emptied of sight,
Mine hands are full of the dust.
If the God of my faith be a liar,
Who is it that I shall trust?

… Oh God, help me. Be my strength. Keep me holding on even as my mind, my emotions, my will revolt. Give me the grace to keep bearing this. Let me wait, and find my certainty that it will not be in vain.

Let me not fail this watch. … And please, if it be at all possible, please, let the rain stop soon…

 

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