Thursday, December 25, 2008

Blessed Christmas 2008!

Walking along Orchard Road with my family and Aunty Daphne's on the night of the 23rd, I stumbled upon a timely reminder painted, as if by the hand of God, on the walls of commercialism, brighter and bolder than the blinding city lights.

Do you see it too?

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."

--Matthew 2:1-2 (NIV)

This is my prayer, my hope, and my confidence this Christmas.

* * * * *

Aunty Daphne asked me, in Port Dickson, what sort of photos I like to take. I answered, after a bit of thinking, Time Exposures.

As I look back, I think time exposures differ from the common notion of 'photograph' because they don't freeze time so much as cool it down, make it something in between a photograph and a video.

It's like glass, the supercooled liquid: translucent from certain angles, yet opaque at others; fluid yet frozen. I miss compact photography, especially the video function of today's digital compact cameras.

What is photography?

It is being surprised by the results of some experiments (this was the photo that convinced me there must be more to long exposures than I'd ever thought)...

It is losing colour in the search for form that transcends the familiar spectrum...

It is doing things we've never done, going places we've never been...

It is getting dirty and ruining ourselves in the passion and wonder of the moment, and laughing over it with friends...

It is playing with time and the nature of our fleeting existence...

It is going wild with props and interacting with everything around us.

Two years ago, I learnt these lessons in Malacca.

Nothing has changed since; I use different tools and have been to many more places with many different people, but the heart of photography remains the same.

And yet, I don't think I have much longer. On some journeys, even a hand or an eye must be sacrificed, Frederick Buechner reminds. We'll see.

Father, as You lead, so help me follow.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Communion, Carols and Jeremiah

Of all the practices and customs that define and distinguish Christian denominations, there is none perhaps so resistant to the currents of time as the Eucharist, and none as unique to each denomination.

These days, music has caught up and most churches probably sing a number of songs in common. Sermons, church architecture and structures of hierarchy differ only slightly. Of course, there is baptism, but then even in that, those that baptise by immersion do it in pretty much the same way.

In communion, I have seen some level of variety even among churches of the same denomination. Maybe it's just me, but whenever I visit a new church, I look forward to communion, because this simple institution of bread and wine represents the distinct identity of a church and yet also identifies it with the larger body of Christ, and with the body and blood of Christ himself.

Now of all denominations, I seem to appreciate mine the least. I happen to prefer more traditionally conducted Eucharists, with the extended liturgies and elaborate ceremonies; but one recent Sunday at my church, something simple yet profound struck me as I watched the communion stewards. First, they took the trays and served the congregation; then, they returned to the altar and stood in line as the assisting pastors served them; finally, the conducting pastor served his assistants.

One word jumped out at me: stewardship. We call them stewards, these people who serve us; and as they serve, they are served by authorities higher than them in the church. What struck me the most was the act of the assisting pastors serving the stewards; I was reminded that all authority we receive from Christ is that we may serve others, and be served by those higher than us.

Some of this, I believe, is reflected in that account of the Centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant. He said, "I too am a man under authority; I say to this man, 'Come', and he comes, to another 'Go', and he goes. So just say the word, and I know my servant will be healed." (Kaun and I sang that Donut Man song on the way down Penang Hill.)

I always used to wonder why he said he too was a man under authority. Not long ago, I realised that he knew he only had authority because someone above him conferred that authority on him. He must have known that Jesus only had power because the Father gave it to Him. And in some way he must have known that Jesus' authority was far greater that his, such that he could give orders to soldiers in sight, but Jesus could order illnesses even in those He could not 'see'.

And no wonder Jesus commended him for his faith. The Israelites awaited the sign of Jonah, and now One greater than Jonah was come. They missed him, but apparently this Gentile, this Centurion, did not.

* * * * *

Lately, I have been hearing Christmas carols in almost all the shopping malls I've visited. And I have been very glad to note that they were true Christmas carols, not just fun seasonal songs like 'Jingle Bells' and 'Rudolf, the Red-nosed Reindeer'.

Almost everywhere, I've heard 'O Come, All Ye Faithful', and the other day in Mid Valley, I heard 'The First Noel'.

As I remarked to Ai Wei, it is amazing that even here, the true King of Israel is proclaimed. The little plot of land is such a fiery bone of contention amongst the followers of the three great Abrahamic religions, and yet at Christmas we are reminded that two thousand years ago, a Child was born who claimed to be the true King of that land.

The Christians believe He died but is now alive, yet we haven't quite seen Him in two millennia.

The Muslims say He did not die but was raised to heaven, and will come again the judge the world. We still haven't seen Him in two millennia.

The non-Messianic Jews say He was a great teacher but not the promised Messiah. God still hasn't sent Him in two millennia, it seems.

And yet at Christmas we sing these crazy hymns in praise and honour of that Child. And apparently those scholars and (possibly) magicians of the East did not think it folly to travel all those miles to honour Him.

It seems equally foolish for the Muslim authorities not to ban the playing and singing of such carols in public, as it is for the Christians to sing them. And yet at every Christmas, Christ is proclaimed.

Ai Wei and I talked about Christmas being at the end of the year. It would seem that the last word of every year is still the Last Word.

* * * * *

Reading Jeremiah this month has been a challenging yet very meaningful experience, especially in context of Christmas and some of the recent struggles.

I know, O LORD, that a man's life is not his own;
it is not for man to direct his steps.

--Jeremiah 10:23 (NIV)

This passage in particular summarises what the book seemed to be saying to me in general:

"'In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David's line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.

In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called:
The LORD Our Righteousness.'

For this is what the LORD says: 'David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, nor will the priests, who are Levites, ever fail to have a man to stand before me continually to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to present sacrifices.'"

The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: "This is what the LORD says: 'If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night no longer come at their appointed time, then my covenant with David my servant--and my covenant with the Levites who are priests ministering before me--can be broken and David will no longer have a descendant to reign on his throne. I will make the descendants of David my servant and the Levites who minister before me as countless as the stars of the sky and as measureless as the sand on the seashore.'"

The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: "Have you not noticed that these people are saying, 'The LORD has rejected the two kingdoms he chose'? So they despise my people and no longer regard them as a nation. This is what the LORD says: 'If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.'"

--Jeremiah 33:15-26 (NIV)

In it, God not only renews the Abrahamic covenant, He also maintains His sovereignty from the creation itself, identifying Himself as the God who set in place the day and the night, and fixed the order of the universe.

Ai Wei quoted to me Psalm 17:14 one morning.

O LORD, by your hand save me from such men,
from men of this world whose reward is in this life.
You still the hunger of those you cherish;
their sons have plenty,
and they store up wealth for their children.

Reading it that night, I was challenged by the verse that followed:

And I--in righteousness I will see your face;
when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Therefore the pure in heart and the righteous must be one and the same. How far I am from that!

I asked myself if I can be truly satisfied with seeing God's likeness upon waking; I still don't really know.

YHWH Tsidkenu: the LORD our Righteousness.

He is the Lord who makes us all right. God wanted to rescue them and set them free from their bad habits. He is a holy God but also a forgiving God. The news God shared with Jeremiah was that He was sending a Holy King to earth -- the Lord Jesus Christ.

--YP's Devotional, May/June 2002

Visiting d'NA 2008

Visited d'NA twice this year. Accompanied Sivin when he gave the lectures on Church History, and made a second appearance at the Graduation.

It's been three years since I last spent a night at STM, and the place hasn't changed, except that campers these days seem to be a lot more sensitive to the segregation of the sexes in the dorms. Or maybe my batch was just an exceptionally naughty bunch of nerds!

Night discussions are as popular as ever, and Sivin had a very engaging one with the d'NAers.

Return of the Divine Conspiracy! Oon-Hui actually bought it, and it reminded me of the stuff SooT and I did back in 2004. I'm still supposed to write a review on it for Michael.

Elisabeth dropped by with her sister; they would fly to Australia the next day for a family holiday.

This year's graduates: Joanna, Valerie, Cang Ling, Daniel and Elise.

Michael, the reason why d'NA was so different this year. He claims he just gave them a slightly firmer-than-usual talk on one of the nights, but apparently it was enough to spark a revival of sorts at camp!

Uncle Jason roped me in to help with the cover artwork of an Scripture Union devotional. I asked for the assistance of fearless d'NAers. Cang Ling asked, "How dangerous is dangerous?" and I said, "Broken bones, maybe." He answered, "Okay!" And then I received a similar response from Oon-Hui, after Valerie declined for fear of heights.

The monkeybars didn't really work out, so we tried the see-saw instead.

I got Oon-Hui to show her face--and a 'happier' one at that--simply by asking, "What makes you laugh?" and "What tickles you?"

My invaluable 'backstage' team: Yee-Hsien and Alissa who helped stabilise the see-saw.

Uncle Jason and the photoshoot team. In the background a Bauhinia blakeana tree is flourishing next to the monkeybars, spreading its branches over it; just three years ago it wasn't even noticeable from on top of the monkeybars.

Alissa took this; I like it!

Alissa on monkeybars.

Michael's flattened banana; he accidentally stepped on it!

Admiral Cove

It was the third of three nearly consecutive holidays. First Penang, then Cameron Highlands, and finally Admiral Cove in Port Dickson. Spent the weekend of 29 November - 1 December at the Avillion Admiral Cove (next to the Yacht Club) with my family (minus Kevin), Aunty Siew Bee's family and Aunty Daphne's family.

Unusually for me, I spent most of my time on the internet and sleeping in the room. I really needed a break after the relatively exhausting first two trips. It was here that I first saw the picture Su Shen took of Ai Wei.

Yacht petrol station.

Shot on Ilford Delta 400 using the old Ricoh LX-10 35mm fixed focal compact and a makeshift filter of red cellophane paper. It was the camera that started it all some five years ago at the NSCF Leaders' Camp and d'NA Stage One.

Happy dustbin.

The three families at the Yacht Club lobby.

Yachts at night.

Sunset at Admiral Cove.

Sara reading by the window.

Jonathan, Aunty Daphne's son.

Pepper, salt and light.

One of my favourite pictures from the trip. As the sun was rising on the third day (no Easter puns, please) during breakfast at the hotel's coffee house, the light streamed in at rapidly changing angles. At one point, it cast the shadows seen in this picture, and in my opinion made the salt and pepper shakers appear like stars on a stage.

The Madrina. A tastefully built yacht in which I wouldn't mind sailing the world.

Common myna at Admiral Cove.

I was lying in wait on one of the poolside deckchairs for a bird to take my bait of croissant, placed on the brick ledge overlooking the harbour. It was to no avail. And then this little one came along and hopped about near the deckchair, quite indifferent to my presence.

Kumar the window cleaner.

Satis the waiter who attended to us at almost all our meals in the coffee house.

On the third day I saw this in the papers. To think my friends and I contributed 87 seats to the 'sold out' status of the concert!

(The whole event was challenging to coordinate, but nonetheless a great experience and a thoroughly enjoyable concert. But that's a story for another post.)

Jesus Hymn

Saw this on SooT's blog, posted Wednesday, November 26, 2008.

* * * * *

Tune: Noel Nouvelet (Now the green blade riseth)

Jesus Christ is waiting, waiting in the street.
No one is his neighbor, all alone he eats.
Listen, Lord Jesus, I am lonely too.
Make me friend or stranger, fit to wait with you.

Jesus Christ is raging, raging in the streets.
Where injustice spirals, and where hope retreats.
Listen, Lord Jesus, I am angry too.
In the kingdom’s causes, let me rage with you.

Jesus Christ is healing, healing in the streets.
Curing those who suffer, touching those he meets.
Listen, Lord Jesus, I have pity too.
Let my care be active, fit to heal with you.

Jesus Christ is dancing, dancing in the streets.
Where each sign of hatred, his strong love defeats.
Listen, Lord Jesus, I should triumph too.
On suspicion’s graveyard, let me dance with you.

Jesus Christ is calling, calling the street.
“Who will join my journey?" I will guide your feet.
Listen, Lord Jesus, let my fears be few.
Walk one step before me, I will follow you.

© Wild Goose/The Iona Community

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Obama's Parking Ticket Machine

What say you?

Monday, December 15, 2008


Light trickes down the shadow
Of the cross, tickling the ducks below.
Do not fear, I am with you as you go;
I am going ahead, will you follow?

Of all the things you leave behind--
(Please stay awhile, stay awhile, stay)
The child, the laughter, the single mind.
(Awhile. Return for me some distant day.)

Vignettes of my childhood years.

(Am I a mole, a vole? Light sears
Through the aperture of time, blinding again.
I am too old for the colour.)

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,
And the beholder's eyes are open.

Every dream of greatness, every hand
Offered in a bid to survive;
A diamond in the desert, a sapphire in the sand,
A jewel in the junk of life.

(Completed over dinner at about 11.45 p.m., 14 December 2008.)

Sara, the LEGO builder

Sometimes I still imagine buildings made, not of bricks and cement, but of large LEGO blocks.

The Great Ibis Adventure

The Ops Gegar Student Leaders' Consultation, organised by FES, happened at the Methodist College on Saturday, 4 October 2008.

Both the PKV's English and Chinese ministries were represented, and I met some of the STOMPers like Luke, Theresa, Esmond and Sock Lee there. d'NA was represented by Tee Ming, Yen Mii and me.

It was quite a tough decision to go for Ops Gegar, as I wanted to keep that Saturday free; my other Saturdays in September were occupied with PKV activities and the Morib field trip. But in the end I did not regret the decision, as it was a good time of learning, meeting people (and meeting people again)... and above all, chancing upon two ibises which appeared to live in the field of the adjacent Methodist Girls' Primary School.

Over lunch, Ann Gie, Hannah and I hopped onto the monorail to Times Square, to look up the ibis (and I to check on Bizandry). It was the Glossy Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus. Hannah expressed her interest in getting a camera, and although it was quite a fruitful short trip, we were 15 minutes late for the next session; Ann Gie and myself for Rethinking CG, and Hannah for Rethinking Leadership.

Armed only with my 11-16mm and 50mm lenses, I could not manage pictures any closer than the one above. I did take a number of photos depicting the ibises in their environment, but I wanted to do some close-ups as well, and so I knew I would return someday.

* * * * *

The date was set: 21 October. It was near the end of quite an emotionally unsettling month which saw me return to watercolour painting for awhile, and it was also the last effective week of the semester. A number of lecturers had already finished their lectures and so I had quite a bit of free time that week.

What I didn't expect was that my sleep prior to The Great Ibis Adventure would be interrupted by a fire drill in college; no wonder there were instructions to clear the college car park the day before.

So there we were, half asleep, lining up for the roll call. The only thing I brought down with me was my camera; I figured it would come in handy for some pictures, and it was only when I reached the car park (Laman Pidato) and amused my friends with my choice of item to save, that I realised it would probably be the first thing I'd grab in the event of a real fire.

Tragically, How was sound asleep in the room when the fire struck. We tried to call him down but he wouldn't budge.

An engine was parked by the Pokok Tanjung and a huge spotlight mounted on a pole rose from it. The siren was quite deafening.

So the firemen gave us a demonstration on how to put out fires using extinguishers, and called forth several volunteers to have a go at it.

It lasted about an hour, and we were done by 4.30 a.m. I decided not to go back to bed, as I was planning to leave about six-something in order to be comfortably in position by 8.00 a.m. I was surprised to find Ai Wei and Shannon online, so we chatted for a while. I believe I also managed to do my morning devotion before leaving, or perhaps I did it on the train.

* * * * *

I left a little later than I'd hoped to, at it was 7.00 a.m. when I reached the field opposite the Engineering Faculty. Thankfully, a bus arrived as I approached the bus stop at 1st College, saving me the journey on foot to the Universiti LRT station.

At 7.20 I was stuck in the platform jam at Universiti.

By 7.50 I arrived at the Methodist College (MC); I'd decided to shoot from there as I could use the wall between MC and the primary school as a blind. The guard, Mr Chan Kum Thong was, however, quite difficult. He said I needed permission from the college's office, and that I needed an appointment to see the person(s)-in-authority. He told me to return at 8.30, and that someone should be able to bring me in to the office then. I bargained for 8.15 and had breakfast at the mamak next to the KL Sentral monorail station.

When I returned between 8.15 and 8.30, he told me to wait until 9.30 when his shift would be over. I told him I could not wait that long (for two reasons: it is usually too hot and uninspiring for bird photography by 10.00 a.m., and I was planning to crash the juniors' 10.00 a.m. - 1.00 p.m. Biology Practical class that morning), and he asked me to try accessing the field from the primary school. I did not know the school was open that day, or I might have tried that alternative much earlier.

It was then, I think, that I heard the loud kee-yawh! cry of the ibis (similar to the Little Heron's, but much deeper and spine-chilling) and saw one descending upon the tree in the distance; it was either then, or at 8.00 when I was about to proceed to breakfast. My heart picked up a few beats in the excitement.

By 9.00, I entered the primary school, easily bypassing the indifferent En Majid, a stark contrast to the very fussy Mr Chan. I have since pronounced it as a consistent rule that the guards of private and of public institutions are from different worlds altogether. I sought permission from the office to photograph the birds, and Fauziah the office clerk was very helpful. "Boleh," she said, with no further questions asked.

Setting up my camera by the field-side, and later crouching in the 'wetlands' below the large tree, I was reminded of my primary school days when chants of "Selamat sejahtera, Cikgu" echoed from the classrooms, and the voices of teachers keeping their pupils in check resounded with a particular sharpness; "Baca sama-sama! Jangan ada yang cepat, ada yang lambat!"

I certainly remember the bug-hunting days in Standard Five, but I don't suppose I would have imagined then that I would someday be crouching in soft-bottomed, waterlogged earth, staking out a bird not normally encountered in the heart of the city.

At first, there were no ibises in sight; there were a couple of herons or so, however, and I busied myself with them while waiting for the 'main course'.

Being a very damp environment with much leaf litter and organic material, molluscs such as snails are quite abundant. I believe crustaceans such as the relatives of freshwater shrimp may also be present. They are the primary food source for the waterbirds which thrive in this serendipitous plot of marshy land in one of the busiest parts of town.

Finally, an ibis came into sight. It alighted on the roof of the office block from which I came. Periodically, a crane from a construction site somewhere nearby emerged over the roof. I felt the juxtaposition of these two creatures--the bird of nature and the bird of man (crane, get it?)--was at once amusing and sobering.

Most of the time, I was leaning against the wall with my camera poised, waiting for the moment the ibis would surely take to the air. At times I think my arms were becoming numb.

At last the moment came! The picture did not come out as sharp or well-focused as I'd hoped it to be, but it was probably the best my D50 and 55-200mm lens combination could manage; neither a fast camera nor a fast lens, but sufficient. An image I was, to be sure, satisfied with.

It settled on one of the branches, and it was on the branches of the large tree that the ibises seemed to spend the hotter hours of the day when we observed them during Ops Gegar.

All in all, a great trip. I thank God for these occasions of setting out early, not quite knowing what to expect, but going in expectancy nonetheless. Perhaps in some ways, such trips can be considered examples of Sivin's 'jump first, fear later' motto.

The ibis story is far from over, and I hope to visit the place again soon.