Embracing pain

Something happened on Friday that left a very deep impression on me.

 I was part of a team that was helping to train one of the biggest Pentecostal churches in Thailand to run the Alpha Course. The mother church in Bangkok has started running the course and wanted its 50-plus daughter churches in the other provinces to start doing it too. So more than 150 full-time staff from around Thailand convened in Bangkok for a three-day training, along with other revival meetings that the mother church was conducting for them.

 On Friday, one of the trainers ran a sample session on “How to be filled with the Holy Spirit”, a talk that’s used at the Alpha Weekend. At the end of the talk, the trainer got the pastors to come forward for a time of ministry, and the team went around praying for them.

 It was nearing the end of the ministry session when someone asked me to pray with a girl who was crying profusely. I went over to her and before I could even say anything, she just held on to me, weeping into my shoulder. I held her tight as her sobs rocked her very small frame. As I gently prayed over her, my heart grieved along with her. There was so much sorrow that was emanating from this little waif of a girl, who was crying as though her heart was breaking inside.

 I found myself praying God’s love over her, reminding her that God loves her very, very much and God has never abandoned her. I sensed that she either had a very bad dad or she might not even have one at all. And I felt so strongly that God wanted her to know that He is her Father and she can call him Papa.

 I don’t know how long I stood there holding her. When the sobs started to subside, I pulled her away a little, just enough for me to brush her hair from her face, tucking it behind her ears, so that I could actually look at her for the first time. By now, she was hiccupping from crying too much while her eyes were swollen from the deluge of tears. She was very skinny and her head came up to just my shoulders. Her dark skin, simple pink polo t-shirt and blue jeans hint at a humble background.

 I asked her if there was anything she wanted me to pray for, but that just elicited more tears. Very slowly, through the hiccups and tears, she whispered that she has AIDS and her parents died from the disease too. (I’m not sure if she were HIV-positive or had full-blown AIDS, but she did use the term AIDS.) Her schoolmates would not go near her and call her all sorts of names. She only has one friend, she said. She is in Secondary 2 but looks like a nine-year-old.

Like any teenager, she must have her dreams. Dreams of having a boyfriend, of being pretty, of having a future. But the reality is she has a death sentence hanging over her. And her sore-scarred arms were a constant reminder that she’s different.

My heart ached for her then, as it does now, two days after meeting her. So much pain to bear for a 14-year-old. I feel so helpless but the only thing that keeps me going is the promise that God is close to the broken-hearted and I know He has a special place in His heart for her. I don’t know if I’ll see her again but I think of her often and each time, I pray that God will be close to her.

Friday was a public holiday in Thailand and honestly, I wasn’t thrilled at having to spend it in church. I’d much rather go to the beach or chill by the pool. But I can say with all my heart now that I can’t think of a better way to spend the public holiday than praying and grieving with an AIDS orphan in my arms.


Planning my own funeral

When a friend — who works out at the gym and pops multivites daily — falls over and dies from a cerebral haemorrhage, it’s difficult not to start thinking of your own mortality. He was just 31, smart, capable, and just got his doctorate three months ago. Then he went to meet his Maker.

It was very surreal to attend both a wedding and a funeral in the same church within a span of just 32 hours. If you think about it, your wedding and your funeral are probably the only two occasions where you can actually gather your friends en masse for a 1.5-hour ceremony — if you don’t count your kid’s wedding, that is.

And since I won’t be planning my wedding any time soon, seems like a good idea to start planning my funeral, though i haven’t made any plans to check out soon. Morbid as it sounds, I can think of so many advantages to planning your funeral especially if it were a sudden death. You get to choose how you want your funeral to be, instead of someone else deciding for you. I know of a pastor who has even printed his funeral bulletin!

Off the top of my head, here’s my preliminary funeral plan:

1. Jazz music please. No depressing dirges.

2. Bright colourful flowers welcomed — sunflowers, gerberas. White roses and lilies banned.

3. Orange coffin!

4. I’ve sounded out some friends to preach at my funeral, but judging from the non-response, I’d probably have to record my own voice-from-the-grave sermon.

5. Guests wear anything but black.

That should be enough to go on for now… Or perhaps I should start listing out the food to be served too. 🙂


How to survive a wedding

It’s going to be a big day tomorrow.

The anticipation is keeping her awake. The dress — which she has mercilessly dieted for in the last three months — is carefully hung up. The delicate heels that would show just flashes of her carefully manicured toes are already by the door. She’s kept to a strict facial regime to make sure she looks her most radiant best tomorrow. She has to go to bed soon. In just a few hours, she’d have to get her hair and make-up done by the professional beautician she’d booked in advance. 

So she sleeps and dreams of her Prince Charming… for tomorrow she attends a wedding.

I jest not. People take weddings very seriously here in Thailand, something that bemuses me no end as a foreigner. Some of the Thai girls that I know probably put as much effort into preparing for the wedding as the bride, if not more. They’d start scouting for a dress months before the wedding, start agonising over how to lose weight and begin piling on the whitening creams to become fairer (which is a national obsession).

When I first came to Thailand many years ago, I was always puzzled over why they’d keep asking me what I plan to wear about two months before the wedding. I always mumbled my way out with a whatever-I-can-find-in-my-wardrobe-that’s-ironed-and-still-fits answer.

But in the name of gaining cultural experience, I once went shopping with a Thai friend for her “wedding” dress. After about 50 dresses and the same repetitive comments from me — “No, you don’t look fat”, “Yes, it looks nice”, “No, you don’t look dark” — I really wanted to understand the need for a new dress that would cost a fifth of her salary.

“Why do you want a new dress? Can’t you just wear something from your wardrobe?”

“No, no! People will know if I wear something old.”

“So you’re buying something that you’ll just wear once…”

“It’s very important to look good, and it’s a great opportunity to dress up.”

“But why must you go to the extent of getting your hair and make-up done professionally?”

“Like I said, it’s a good excuse to dress up and look nice. And we might meet a nice guy.”

“Is it even worth it? After all, everyone will be looking at the bride and not you, right?”

To each his own, I suppose. While I may not be ecstatic going to weddings, I don’t go out of my way to avoid them, unlike some other singles that I know. Most of the time, I’m genuinely happy for the couple unless I don’t like either or both of them in which case I won’t even be attending it. 🙂 I enjoy witnessing the blessing of a union before God and seeing a new family unfold. I can even sit through the “two are better than one” sermons that nine out of ten pastors preach.

The one thing that my heart truly sinks at is when it’s time for the bride to throw her bouquet. I have no problems with this harmless piece of fun but I truly and deeply dislike being pulled out to the front to jostle with the 20-year-olds for a shot at being the next to get married. I don’t know which I resent more: being forced to do something that’s very much against my will or being slapped with the assumption that all singles want to get married. But in Thailand where everything is “just for fun”, you sometimes just have to grin and bare it — much like a barbecued dog I once saw in Hanoi.

And since I’m going to attend a wedding tomorrow (I still don’t know what I’m going to wear as my clothes forgot to grow along with my waistline), I thought I’d just list down some tongue-in-cheek tips to survive a wedding:

5. If possible, go with a friend — like a real friend, and not some guy you’ve talked into being your fake boyfriend for the day.

4. No one’s pitying you that you’re still single; it’s probably all in your head. And even if they were, you can’t really stop people from thinking what they want to think.

3. Find out when the bouquet-tossing is scheduled for and make a quick getaway to the loo before anyone can forcibly drag you into it.

2. When the pastor starts listing out the advantages of having a mate for life and that feeling of envy starts scratching at you, think of all the perks as a single. You can decide where to go and what to eat, and no one’s going to fight you for the remote.

1. Decide that you’re going to have a good time and you’re there to bless the couple and to share in their joy. Humour always helps especially when asked the when-is-it-your-turn question. I usually have a few caustic comebacks at the back of my head but since sarcasm’s not useful in building relationships in a foreign land, I tend to have to be more diplomatic like: “Oh, that’s because I can’t find someone as good as you” OR “Ah, but you’ve taken the best one already.”

But I think I’ll try a new one tomorrow, if people are not sick of asking me the same question yet. I’d shrug and say, “Don’t know yet. What about you? When did you get married? How did he propose? What was your wedding like” And just keep them talking about themselves until they forget the original question. Fingers crossed.