Hope and longing

I saw the Holy City coming down from God. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” – Revelations 21:2-4.

A GROUP OF 17 ex-prisoners gathered at Pulau Ubin for a three-day retreat over the recent National Day weekend. Some of them had been out of prison and had reintegrated into society for more than three years, while others had gone home for barely two months. Most had been imprisoned three times or more, each having spent a total of at least five years in jail. To the average person on the street, these men would be considered “hard-core” and incorrigible. I wondered, though, how God regarded them.

For three days, the men played, prayed, rested, worshipped, studied the Bible and shared from their hearts. In their sharing, they talked about their deep fear of “falling away”. They acknowledged their tendency to indulge their sinful natures. They longed to be set free from the sin that enslaved them. The struggle to live as children of God in a godless environment was a daily reality, and they were constantly aware of how vulnerable they were. In the midst of their struggles, each strove to live heroically.

T nearly could not make it to the retreat. He works very long hours as a taxi driver in order to support his family. In his sharing, he admitted that he was often anxious about whether he could make ends meet. Despite this, he commits weekly to ferrying the children of prisoners whom he does not know to Saturday activities organised by Prison Fellowship Singapore.

C kept to himself most of the time. He feared rejection more than anything else. He had been out of prison since April and his greatest joy was that his siblings had forgiven and accepted him. Living as a Christian was a big struggle. Two things kept him going: a promise he had made to Jesus while in prison, and a Christian friend who called him every week to encourage him.

Three other men shared how they longed to worship together with those who could understand their struggle with sin. One expressed his longing to be himself and to live without a mask.

As I listened to the men share, the thought struck me: “ They are just like me.” Deep within, we share the same anguish over our sinfulness and slavery to addictions. We anticipate the day when we will be transformed, and have final victory over sin. We long for God to dwell among us and to deliver us from our moral and spiritual sickness. In the meantime, we know that we will have to soldier on, sometimes victoriously, often limping along. But we are assured that we can find support and courage from each other.

Beyond the superficial, the ex-prisoner is no different from me. We are alike in our sinfulness; more than that, we share a common hope and longing for God to live among us and to transform us. Four years ago, my daughter Kimberley, then 10, had an encounter with an ex-prisoner and penned the following in her journal:

On Wednesday night, Uncle S came to stay with us overnight. We played and talked, and I sang my own compositions. He was very impressed with me. You see, he has not seen a child for five years.

Uncle S is an ex-prisoner. He was imprisoned for five years for drug traffi cking. He came from a broken family. He had no mother, and all his father ever expressed emotion over was his exam results. He spanked him when he did badly and pinched his cheeks when he did well.

The moment Uncle S stepped into my room, he was awestruck. “Wow,” he said, “ is is really a family.”

It really saddens me. It really angers me, the way people treat ex-prisoners. “You are dangerous. You’re wrong. You’re BAD!” But one more thing they should say is “You’re just like me!”

They’ve changed! Nobody sees that. None of us is perfect. If we had no education, no love, no help from anyone, of course we will do something wrong. I am a Christian. I believe God loves everyone. Jesus died for everyone.

It’s just not fair! Why do people think that others are not worthy of love, of life, of happiness, all because they have been to prison? If I could, I would just about change the mind of everyone who ever looked down on a prisoner.

Four years on, Uncle S has moved on quite a bit. He has matured, holds a diploma in counselling, and continues to help others while working on his own recovery.

Kimberley continues to believe passionately that given love and opportunities, the marginalised can live meaningful and productive lives. She volunteers in a weekly reading programme for prisoners’ children and tenaciously helps them get the opportunities to develop their skills and potential.

My plea to the Church is this: Journey with the marginalised. Listen to their stories. Hear their cries. Walk with them, not as benefactors with beneficiaries, but as equal companions on the journey of life. We may discover that these “men from hell” are in truth messengers of God, sent to rekindle our hope and longing for God to dwell among us.



On arts in worship

THE SECOND Methodist School of Music (MSM) Worship Symposium was held at the MSM premises and at Trinity eological College (TTC) from June 22 to 24, 2011. It is a biennial gathering of worship leaders (pastors, musicians, etc.) from various denominational backgrounds and traditions from Southeast Asia.

With the avenue of exchange, learning and sharing of resources, the workshops included lectures and panel discussions on worship matters, theology, musical skills and choral concepts, with a special focus on the arts in worship through the seasons, and how to integrate multicultural elements into the worship experience.

More than 134 participants from Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and the United States represented various denominations. Workshop clinicians and facilitators included lecturers from overseas and the TTC.