God’s Favorite Customer

We’re expecting our first child!

Yes, cue the confetti cannons, fireworks display and tears of joy, all of them worthy of this moment of pure elation from two individuals who became one and are now excited to be a three. That saying, this was a 3-0 win where the score hardly told the whole story. Though I must preface that while this was certainly a backs-against-the-wall, huddled in, hard fought victory, it was not won thanks to a ricochet off the derriere of a defender and two goalmouth scrambles but by a sparkling hat-trick in second half extra time by the Big Guy himself. The story? Here goes.

It started on a fairly inconspicuous morning on September 2. My wife had her usual Kiwi breakfast and me my cup of coffee. We had taken the day off for our first trimester scan. The morning was bright. We had the confetti cannons loaded, ready for launch that weekend to happy smiles from family and friends. The pregnancy had been smooth thus far – a little nausea and a sudden taste for sweet drinks aside, my wife was checking more good boxes than a heavyweight champ.

I went into the scan much like how I’ve approached most important milestones in my life – certain of the best, unaware of the worst. That’s not to say I am a raging optimist, but I will concede that I can be as thick as a concrete slab on occasion. To be fair to me, in this case I was urged on by how well the pregnancy has gone thus far. My wife on the other hand is not me. She had strongly considered the possibility of the worst but hopeful that things will be okay. This is as close to a winning hand as my wife would allow herself to have in most circumstances. I took that.

On hindsight, the events leading to the scan were mostly blur and hazy. What I remember earliest was sitting next to my wife as the doctor tried coaxing our baby into a clearer position. The ‘Nuchal Translucency’ scan is to measure the clear (translucent) space in the tissue at the back of your baby’s neck to assess your developing baby’s risk of having Down Syndrome and some other chromosomal abnormalities, as well as major congenital heart problems. She was running through a list of things that she could see during the first part of the scan. Limbs, check. Brain development, check. Spine, check. Go baby go.

Then, some silence. Followed by more silence. Keep going doctor, baby is doing well right?

Right?

Next thing, like a movie with choppy editing, I found myself sat at her desk as phrases such as ‘Below 3 is normal and your baby’s is 3.95’, ‘Down Syndrome’, ‘Turner’s Syndrome’ and ‘blood test to see what we are dealing with’ started washing over us like a bucket of cold water in winter. The conjunctions and verbs did not matter. Those phrases are like zombies, and you want to keep them as far away from your kid as possible. Here they were, right in the same room as our baby and we were powerless to do anything.

It’s interesting. When you are served with the worst news possible, words become the least valuable commodity in that exchange. What said more than her assurance that she has presided over cases with these readings where it came back all okay (“1 or 2 cases”) was the prolonged silence as she combed the scanner over our baby. The skip in her voice as she relayed what her recommendations were. That painful millisecond of eye contact she avoided when she said the words ‘it is more likely to be Down Syndrome than Turner’s’.

We were told to take a blood test that will confirm or rule out the possibility up to 99%. The ultrasound scan only provided an accuracy of up to 70%. Let me try and put this in language that makes sense to me. 70% is a pretty decent score. I would spend my valuable weekend afternoon watching a movie with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 70% without question. The numbers were really against our little one.

We would need to wait 10-days for the results. Yes, 10 days.

Both of us experienced the moment quite differently. For me, it was like being invited to a high tea but unknowingly ending up in a shark tank as the day’s feed. For my wife it was like seeing her car crash happening in slow motion but being assured that there are air bags but being told at the last moment that, “Sorry miss, your model doesn’t have air bags.”

We were distraught and dismayed naturally. My wife took it worst than I did mainly because I could retreat into a fight or flight survival mode, a state of mind that had served me well during the more distressing seasons of my existence. I can best describe it as strapping a bullet proof vest on my emotions and preparing to take heavy fire. My wife had mostly lived a charmed existence up till this point, something I’ve always appreciated and valued because it tempers the more cynical sides of me but it did not serve her as well during this crisis.

That saying, compared to my more challenging seasons in life, this one had different taste of poison to it. It’s one thing to contend for one’s own life with some cards to play, it’s another to contend for the life of a helpless being with a pretty bad hand. The more accurate depiction is that we had no hand, no cards left to play, we were flayed out in the sun, awaiting our fate. We turned to binges of ‘Midnight Diner’ and ice cream (Inside Scoop’s ‘Cempedak’ and ‘Peanut Butter and Jelly’ the chief comforters) to soothe the days over, to distract us from a 50/50 fate with vastly different repercussions.

Terminating the pregnancy, if we were given the news we did not want, was of course not an option. Even removing the obvious Christian reason, I was never going to do it. Not after my little one raised its hand and waved during the ultrasound. Once you accept a wave, you can never take it back (I have since considered the possibility that it was not a wave but a gesture representation of The Beatles’ 1970 hit ‘Get Back’).

There was really nothing much to do but pray. I don’t want to say this like ‘it’s the last girl in the tuition class who is single so you ask her out’ kind of thing but that we were desperate for a miracle and God was really the only one who could provide it. We prayed as soon as we opened our eyes in the morning and prayed just before we shut it in the night.

Our close friends literally cried with us and called us every day to pray for us, prayed with us and encouraged us. They prayed prayers of comfort to war cries for a miracle for our little one. They did communion with us. They had calls with us to just catch up to get our minds off the wait. They recorded prayers and sent them to us. They sent us articles and stories to encourage us. They contended for a miracle for our little one. Our close friends formed a wall around us and protected us from all sides. We are so grateful for them.

Our families prayed with us. My in-laws very sweetly invited us over, uncharacteristic during this pandemic mainly because my wife was not vaccinated so they preferred to keep a distance, and awkwardly suggested a prayer session with my father-in-law penning his prayer down in a notebook. If you don’t know them, I will tell you this – it was an amazingly sweet gesture. My mom went nuclear positive and started suggesting doctors make mistakes all the time and medical machines are never always serviced properly so readings can be wrong. In hindsight, I wish I had the faith and positivity of my mom because as ridiculous as it sounded to us at the time, she was not far from the truth.

I was hopeful, my wife did not dare hope. I tempered my language, toggling between a very niche space of not giving into despair and putting on the complete cloak of hopelessness when speaking with her. My wife asked me how can I so easily have hope. I told her that if you’ve been in enough hopeless situations, a little hope is better than not having any at all.

I know the language I had used up till this point to describe the less desirable outcome can sound too negatively-slanted and perhaps disrespectful to parents with special needs children but this cannot be further from the truth for both my wife and me. All parents begin this journey wanting their children to be healthy and normal but the love we have for our child is not conditional at all. We took the week to process both possible outcomes. Our very human and fallible nature would of course lean towards God tying everything up in a neat bow for the two of us at the end of the 10 days but we also equally processed the possibility of us having a special needs kid.

I won’t lie, the start of the process was difficult for the two of us, owing mainly to having a metaphorical carpet being pulled from under our whole lives. We were mostly reeling from that. As the days flipped by though, we started coming closer and closer to a place of beauty about having a special needs child. I told my wife that in some moments when I think about our family in the future, our kid in that picture is a special needs child and it looked so beautiful to me. I told my wife that if God’s plan is for us to raise a special needs child then I can’t think of two people more qualified for the job.

We were encouraged by stories of people who raised a child with Down Syndrome and how the whole experience was like a positive atom bomb of happiness and love being detonated in the middle of their lives and their other children’s lives. I don’t want to sound condescending because I really am not, but I truly came to a place of such respect for people who have raised special needs children with love and hope. It’s a thing of such pure beauty in this world where the word ‘love’ is sometimes thrown around so cheaply.

But God had other plans though.

At around 3.45pm on September 13, 11 calendar days and 7 working days after we got the news and submitted for the blood test, my wife burst into my work room while I was on a work call with tears in her eyes. Fearing the worst, I haphazardly got off the call and walked up to her, intending to comfort her that everything will be okay because God has a plan when she showed me the message from the clinic that read …

“Good day, your screening blood test report is low risk. Do you want to know gender?”

And just like that, nonchalantly, we were delivered the news. No screeching ring of the phone. No dramatic build-up or necessary verbal gestures over a call. Just a by-the-way message in mid afternoon from a nurse who has probably presided over hundreds of these tests with low risk results, unaware of the week we’ve had. And with a snap of a finger, God had tied the destiny of our little one back into a neat ribbon and restored the carpet back under our feet. It was both a thing of unbelievable beauty and pristine tidiness. God is indeed good and God was indeed willing to give us that miracle. And so He did.

September 13 was in many ways a culmination of a journey that God brought my wife and me on to land us at this perfect place. From my reservations about being a father, my wife’s mental hurdles regarding unrealistic expectations of her and our slight travails during conception, God managed to bring to attention and answer each of those things for us with sharp, emphatic gestures. It’s been quite an adventure but one I am glad to report, brings about the satisfaction of a happy ending. I say this in a way that encapsulates the entire journey and not to suggest that any outcome besides this would’ve been an unhappy ending.

I think God quite wonderfully brought us to a place where we were assured that any outcome would’ve inevitably been a happy ending. We reminded ourselves that despite the scare at the scan that by all accounts our baby was developing well in all other areas and that no matter what hurdles we would have to jump, we would have provided a refuge of love and protection to our child.

I guess for those of you that do not accept stories of the miraculous without a fistful of salt, I unfortunately have no well-drawn charts, roll of citations or 10-point arguments to offer you. It’s always been a struggle of mine to explain the personal relationship I have with God in a way that satisfies a skeptic’s penchant for not wanting to believe. I know, my wife knows and our child is now well despite all the numbers and statistics working strongly against us. There is a strong emotional connection that is form between you and God when you cry out to him in despair, against the odds of the world and he answers in a way that makes it so clear to you that He hears every word.

The beauty of this miracle that God was willing to do for us is none more perfectly incapsulated than in the smile that returned on my wife’s face the morning after we received the good news. She had asked me if it was a dream, during the harrowing 11-day wait. I had said unfortunately, no. She asked me again on the morning of 14 September if it was a dream. I was so glad that I was able to tell her, “Fortunately, no.”

I’ve taken to challenging myself to sing my little one a Beatles song a day every night before we sleep until birth day. On September 13, I sang ‘The Long and Winding Road’. I had told my wife days earlier that no matter the outcome, I would sing that song on that day anyway …

‘The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to your door

In darkness lights are out

There’s been a storm brewing in Christian circles recently, with the recent allegations and unearthing of credible evidence of sexual misconduct by reputable late evangelist/apologist Ravi Zacharias. It’s evidently sad when something like this happens, not the least because of how this would affect his family and the people close to him. Relational redemption is difficult to be sought given he passed away in May last year of cancer.

What is left is probably a lot of questions, anger, emptiness and the remnants of the moral bloodbath that was left behind for everyone to pick up. There are a lot of people I know who have been shaken to the core from these developments. People who have spent countless hours pouring over every word he wrote and spoke.

I have always been wary of ‘hero-worshipping’ Christian personalities and leaders. This is not by any grand design of mine or even a momentary spot of revelation but because of my personal experiences. I’ve seen first-hand the dark rabbit hole that one can spin into if this notion is left unchecked. The church I attended in my youth was led by someone who took advantage of the fact that people looked up to him. He revered in it and manipulated it for his own purposes. The fallout from that was a church divided between people who wanted right to be done and people who refused to see their hero fall. In the ensuing madness, there were voices and hands raised, bibles were thrown and lives that have probably never been the same since.

I mostly wish that I had not gone through those things. They have caused some long-term damage to my perspective on the institution of the church and it’s no fun battling these things while trying to honor God’s word about being a part of his house. A house that if I am honest, I am still sometimes wary of.

Except on days like these. Days like these, I am thankful for that wariness.

Why? Because it keeps me on my feet when a lot of people around me are wobbling. I don’t say this feeling superior. I am just trying to end this life on the right side and there are enough things out there that will cause me not to. I hardly want to start looking for things in my own home.

The moral component is crucial in Christian leadership and it is because of this that I find the concept of hero-worshiping within Christian circles so detrimental. Why? I have come to realise that none of us would pass the test when held to the light. No matter if you are Ravi Zacharias, the pastor of my church or you and me. If you think otherwise then you need to read your Bible again. You may argue that there is a societal difference between caught telling a white lie and being caught with your pants down, but that’s just a bi-product of humans making layers of concessions for things they find increasingly acceptable. God has always been rather simple with these things.

My personal alarm rings when people celebrate that incredible Christian writer, that new talented and charismatic worship leader or that pastor who is leading that dynamic church. This is no fault of these personalities, they are doing what they can and in many cases are called to do.

If there is any fault to apportion, then it would be on you and me who ‘worship’ them.

A ‘god’ is after all given power by the people who worship them. Bad things usually happens when they start believing in that power we’ve given them. It’s the main reason why I am frankly quite uninterested to know who wrote that song we sing in church, who is that new pastor for that exciting church in Australia or who is that new incredible Christian author that all us should read. It’s my tiny bid to try and keep that power away from people who can’t handle it. Yes, most people can’t.

I’ve learned to keep my relationship with God pretty simple. I hear from him through his Word and I speak to him when I pray, and I try to do that every day if I can. All the cultural and fashionable stuff within Christian circles is just not necessary for me. I mostly treat it as being detrimental to me, so I stay far away from them. It’s probably why I try and keep myself low in the food chain in church. I find that it is easier and more meaningful for me to be accountable to people I work with everyday in my cell, people who are entrenched in my life. There is that girl who helped coordinate our wedding and that boy who I journeyed with through a horrible relationship. None of them are faceless. There is a danger, at least for me, when they become faceless.

While I am generally happy to sing the songs that are presented to me in church, when I really want to hear a good songwriter, I pick up a Bruce Springsteen record instead. Why? Well, he’s a better songwriter than most and it hardly registers for me when he is caught doing something improper like that DWI recently. Mainly because he never said he was beyond these things and moral integrity is not exactly part of his job description. Now, endorsing a line of rugged luxury cars in that silly Superbowl ad when he constantly sang about being a working class man, that I took issue with. But I’ve since forgiven him, cause he wrote ‘Thunder Road’.

And yes, I do respect the office of leadership in Christian circles. I have not reduced it to a tadpole. But I have worked hard to separate between the office and the man. I always revere the office and what it does and stands for, but I am quite uninterested in the man in most cases. Just as long as he walks the talk, he has my vote. And if he/she was someone who was truly doing everything they do because of God, then they should be happy to have someone like me on their side. At least, they would be in an ideal world.

I was asked recently how I feel about what has happened and how it has affected me. It would be untrue if I said I didn’t feel anything at all but it would be the same feeling I have if someone told me that a pastor of a small church in Klang has been caught with sexual misconduct. I hardly bat an eyelid when Christian personalities ‘fall’, not because I expect them to, but because I always reserve some subconscious notion that everyone, and I mean everyone, has the possibility to. At the same time, I do feel sad for anyone close to him who was caught by the wayside because of what has happened. The same way me and family were when it happened to us.

These things shouldn’t happen, but they unfortunately do.

Sleeps with butterflies

‘There was no party, there were no songs
‘Cause today’s just a day like the day that he started
No one has left here that knows his first name
And life barrels on like a runaway train
Where the passengers change
They don’t change anything
You get off; someone else can get on …’ – Ben Folds

I’ve been thinking a lot about death.

I know, it’s hardly the appropriate tidings for the season but it is what it is. Don’t get me wrong, I also in equal measure enjoy staring at our lovely Christmas tree and recently, watching ‘Love Actually’ as the token yuletide movie of the year. So it’s not like I am growing moldy sitting alone at home on a wing chair in the dark. But at the same time I have also been thinking about death, a lot. I see it even in songs that are really not about death (The Ben Folds song above is about someone being laid off).

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the precise moment when it happens and how that would feel like.

As a Christian, I’ve been conditioned since young to focus on what happens after that moment. The bright light, the rejoicing, the yellow brick road and Oz. Just kidding. Jokes aside, I do fundamentally believe in the moment after of course. You can’t exactly subscribe to only a portion of what you consider the truth. But it won’t stop me considering the flip-side to that which is just a big well, nothing. No big party. No bright lights. Just, nothing. The cliché often employed is that it’s like going to sleep but not waking up.

I must confess at certain points of my existence that has sounded somewhat, comforting. Lately it hasn’t been though. I’ve been thinking a lot about what ‘nothing’ feels like.  Yes, it feels like nothing, of course.  But that just seems so stark, so brutal. That the amount of energy and force-of-will that it takes for us to go through life is just snuffed out in an instant and there is just, nothing.

If I am being honest it feels a little lonely. Not that you would be conscious of that when it happens because you are just in that big nothing, but that’s my sentiment on how the nothing would feel like.

In this age of almost unmitigated popular culture saturation, one can become a little desensitised about death and to be fair, for a long time, I was. But lately, I’ve been processing every death I read about or even see on screen. I consider what it would’ve felt like for them at the point of death and how it would’ve felt like if they had indeed stepped into the huge nothing. Even reading about people who have long gone sparks bouts of rumination. Like how I recently read about the making of Bowie’s 1971 record ‘Hunky Dory’ and I started thinking about how it’s been already four-years since he’s died and how he would never been experiencing new things anymore, new sounds and new words and everything with him has just come to a grinding halt. And this is a man who literally rewrote the rules of rock music. What more me, some random guy living in Kuchai Lama?

“Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” – from TV show The Good Place.

I write all this in the expectation that weeks from now, I won’t remember that I wrote a single one of these words. That like most existential crises, it just fades away to the background because something else just becomes louder. That quote from The Good Place sums it up nicely. That the very concept that our expiry clock starts on the day we are born should be enough to render us unwilling to do anything and just give up altogether. But humans are resilient and we just get on with it, by minimising this dark inevitability into the background of our lives and to just kick this bucket decades down the road and occupy ourselves with things that gives us meaning and happiness today. If you think about it, life is just a series of distraction tactics.

I am also cognisant of the fact that I appear to be writing all this rather atheistically. Like I personally believe there is just a huge nothing after we die. But that’s not what I believe. I believe there is something more awaiting us at the other side.

At least, there has to be.