R e f l e c t i o n s on a train

Dec 2013    

… there is no “quick and efficient” way to walk with another person through the vicissitudes of life.

Afew months ago, I attended a conference in Port Dickson and asked the organisers to help me arrange my return journey. They suggested I take the train from Seremban; a journey scheduled to take about six and a half hours; and since they were locals and knew best, I did not quibble. Someone drove me to the train station and I found my way to the correct platform. The train arrived punctually; I found my seat and settled down. As the train wended its way through rural Negri Sembilan, Malacca and Johor, I let my mind wander.

First, this was not the fastest or shortest way home. But it was a six-and-a-half-hour reminder to me that there is more to life than efficiency or even effectiveness, two qualities which we Singaporeans pride ourselves in.

Some aspects of the Christian life can be a “royal waste of time” as Marva Dawn describes worship. But what is meaningful, significant and important is spending time with another person, in discipleship, mentoring, counselling, or caring for a special needs child. These are also time-consuming and not very productive, but there is no “quick and efficient” way to walk with another person through the vicissitudes of life.

Furthermore, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that our own character formation takes much time, patience, and repetition before we actually “get it”. Perhaps if we had more life experiences which forced us to take time and effort – like cooking a meal from scratch instead of just buying one, or spending intentional leisurely time with family and friends, without constantly reaching for our mobile phones to check for messages – we can be more patient with others. Then we can also be more aware of the Spirit’s attempts at transforming us into Christ-likeness.

Secondly, the journey reminded me how, as human beings, our existence is closely intertwined with the land, but we Singaporeans are barely conscious of that.

We live in air-conditioned comfort, buy chickens ready-plucked and neatly cut in hygienic Styrofoam packaging and almost all fruits are available regardless of the season. While these are convenient and partly a result of our economic and geographic circumstance, it also means that we are not tied to the vagaries of land and weather, unlike farmers, who we in turn rely on for our chicken and fruit.

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve sinned, but the ground was also cursed as a result, producing thorns and thistles. In Isaiah 24 there is a close relation between the sin of the people and the destruction of the environment.

In contrast, speaking of the future in Isaiah 51:3, God says that he will make Zion’s “deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.” Zion’s restoration and salvation will be reflected in the land.

Hence we are reminded that human beings are part of the created order and are stewards of and responsible for the land. While in so many ways Singaporeans are divorced from the land, as Christians we need to be much more mindful of the land and therefore be environmentally conscious.

Thirdly, most of my train journey through the rural backwaters of the southern Malaysian states was a stark visual contrast to the polish and high-rise glitter of the usual Singapore cityscape. Frankly, not all the scenery was picturesque, interesting or exciting. Our physical circumstance makes meticulous urban planning a necessity, but our highly built-up environment is crowded and claustrophobic.

God brings us to spacious places (Ps 18:19; 31:8). Jesus as Shepherd brings us to green pastures to graze, and that again implies vast spaces to wander around in. Just as space is a gift from God, it is a gift we give others. Space for our children to be who they are without the demands of our agenda, space to make mistakes and therefore learn well, time and space spent with friends exploring new places and ideas.

These thoughts lazily passed through my mind during the journey. And as we reached Woodlands and I gathered my things, I realised that we were 20 minutes early. That was a pleasant bonus.

Kwa Kiem Kiok is a local preacher at Trinity Methodist Church and teaches missions-related subjects at East Asia School of Theology


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