Small Steps, Big Faith

Most of us often share testimonies of great things that happen in our lives as a sign of the greatness of God. Testimonies of missionaries often speak of the great things they’ve done to show how they were willing to stretch their faith, to go beyond the natural.

I have learnt, however, through my home situation over the past few months that sometimes, it’s the very small actions we do that reveal the extent of our faith and I have learnt this through my sister.

She was healed of her brain lymphoma through a very intensive regime of high dose chemo, which has lots of side-effects, which left her bed-ridden for a long time. Her muscular strength has been greatly weakened and simple actions like using her left hand now become such a chore.

Prior to her high dose chemo, she was indeed a prayer warrior. I remembered how she would hold my mum’s hand or mine everyday and pray for almost an hour together with her – praying over her own condition, over my family. She would write Bible verses out, draw pictures to illustrate these verses. Her big faith encouraged and humbled me.

IMG_7548One of my sister’s drawing – showing Christ the King.
She’s the baby, with an angel on her left.
 

After the high dose chemo, these outward expressions of her faith ceased. Yet, what I have come to realise, through the revelation of her physiotherapist yesterday that my sis is still living that life of faith in ways that we often take for granted.

Yesterday, during my sister’s physio, the physio was teaching her how to stand on her own. Every time my sister stood up, she always reached forward, wanting to hold on to something for support. The physio then told her,

You must have faith. You must believe that you can do it and that you do not need to hold on to anything. I am holding your legs, your maid is behind you. You won’t fall.”

Then, my sis braced herself – and she managed to stand up! – without having to hold on to anything. Though it was not for long, it was nonetheless a step of faith.

Looking at her, I thought to myself, “Wow. Every step my sister takes, even a simple act of standing up – is an act of faith.”

I really thank God for opening my eyes to see this.

On Saturday at a family BBQ, after my family members encouraged her greatly, my sis had a sudden surge of determination and she asked for the walker and wanted to walk. She walked for a longer distance, but she wanted to move herself up to two ‘steps’ into the house. Walking on flat ground is already tough enough – what more moving up to another platform. Though she had great assistance, the very fact that she wanted to do it, and believed that she could do it, was in itself a great step of faith given that prior to that, she was struggling with walking even on flat ground.

For the past few days, we have been filling up a ‘blessing box’ her friend made for her. Her friend gave her a cute heart-shaped box along with many small paper-cut hearts.

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Whenever my sister feels blessed, she will write a blessing on that heart, and put it in the box. Every time we sit down together, we recount the seemingly small blessings, simple things like a gift from my girlfriend, a visit from my brother’s girlfriend, a car-ride by my father, my mum’s efforts to take care of her. We write them down, and put them in the box. God is not doing big things in her life, but these small things assure us that God is with us.

I am proud of my sister and encouraged by her, because her small steps and small actions reveal an outworking of her faith. It has been a very tough road for her, filled not just with physical pain, but emotional anguish and disappointment, but I know that what seems like a small step for us is a big step for her. I’m holding on and believing in a mighty testimony to emerge from what my sister and my family has gone through.

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Our purpose of love

These were the verses I meditated upon today my devotional time:

“Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith…” (1 Timothy 1:5)

In this verse, it speaks about the purpose of the commandment, of God’s law and it boils it down to 3 simple components: love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from a sincere faith.

I’ve read this verse before and it has brought great revelation in my earlier Christian days, but even now, this verse still continues to bring light to my walk with God.

What is the purpose of the commandments? We all know that the commandments are not supposed to restrict us. We know that obedience to the commandments no longer justify us.

What then is the purpose of these commandments?

I believe this verse paints a more concrete picture of the kind of work God wants to do in us through giving us the commandments and provides some insight into how we can delight in His laws.

The purpose of the commandment is not simply obedience – it is, as stated in the verse above, love – to engage us to the love of God and to one another.  

And the way to pursue love, and fulfill the purpose of the commandment, is, as John Piper states, to “focus on the transformation of the heart & conscience, and the awakening and strengthening of faith.

The Message translation presents this more clearly:

“The whole point of what we’re urging is simply love—love uncontaminated by self-interest and counterfeit faith, a life open to God.”

The commandments transform our heart – they transform our heart towards God and towards others.

Our ‘natural’ selves seek to find idols and security in relationships, in money, in our jobs, but the commandments direct us to put God first, the ultimate source of security and joy.

Every human being, regardless of their personality, has a need for openness – we all yearn to find that space where we can be ourselves, where we can be completely honest with all the nasty feelings and resentments held within our hearts and we often look for it in many places, but God. This applies not only to non-Christians, but to Christians too. The commandments direct us to that place of openness to God.

Our natural selves covet and compare. Our natural selves struggle with commitment, but the purpose of the commandments is to transform our heart, so that we may love, without self-interest.

With this renewed perspective on the commandment, I finally understand the man in Psalm 1:2, whose delight is in the law of the Lord and how David exclaims in Psalm 119 that he loves the law. The law aligns us in such a way that as we meditate more on it, our heart towards God grows and it brings us into that love from a pure heart, a good conscience and sincere faith. What an amazing God we have! 

Boing Boing Reads

Some interesting reads from Boingboing.net

Imparting What is Needed

Every educator, in spite of that common goal of ‘educating’, really has his/her own individual set of values which he integrates into his own pedagogy. I’ve been reading The Last Lecture lately and this passage, which I’d like to share and possibly develop on in the future, really provoked much reflection in me about the kind of teacher I have been and want to be.

It is an accepted cliche in education that the number one goal of teachers should be to help students learn how to learn.

I always saw the value of that, sure. But in my mind, a better number one goal was this: I wanted to help students learn now to judge themselves.

Did they recognise their true abilities? Did they have a sense of their own flaws? Were they realistic about how others viewed them?

In the end, educators best serve students by helping them be more self-reflective. The only way any of us can improve – … – is if we develop a real ability to assess ourselves. If we can’t accurately do that, how can we tell if we’re getting better or worse?

Some old-school types complain these days that higher education too often feels like it is all about customer service. Students and their parents believe they are paying top dollar for a product, and so they want it to be valuable in a measurable way. It is as if they’ve walked into a department store, and instead of buying five pairs of designer jeans, they’ve purchased a five-subject course-load.

I don’t fully reject the customer-service model, but I think it’s important to use the right industry metaphor. It’s not retail. Instead, I’d compare college tuition to paying for a personal trainer at an athlete club. We professors play the roles of trainers, giving people access to the equipment.. and after that, it is our job to be demanding. We need to make sure that our students are exerting themselves. We need to praise them when they deserve it and to tell them honestly when they have it in them to work harder. Most importantly, we need to let them know how they’re coming along…

A professor’s [teacher’s] job is to teach students how to see their minds growing in the same way they can see their muscles grow when they look in the mirror.”

Going along the same theme of imparting the skills of self-assessment in students is another extract which I read when looking into modes of alternative assessment today (will elaborate on this in the future, if time permits).

The context of the extract is that the author is arguing for the need to move away from teacher-centred assessment to empowering students to make their own assessments of their abilities – and no, this in no way reduces the work of the teacher.

The point of “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” is to show how, in Internet culture, we are often judging, responding, offering feedback, and working together through crowdsourcing but our educational system rarely if ever does anything to prepare students for offering or receiving feedback.   In fact, very little in our society prepares us for responsible and responsive exchange.  Typically, we learn how to please a figure in power.  We do not practice or learn principles for helping one another through an iterative, interactive process.  In a digital age, everyone is offered an invitation to participate.  But where in our schooling or even in our informal learning process do we teach young people how to take responsibility for representing themselves in public, for participating in public dialogue?

I’m fascinated that the blogosphere was so annoyed with me for wanting to teach responsible judgment practices as part of my pedagogy. I think it is because grading, in a curious way, exemplifies our deepest convictions about excellence and authority, and specifically about the right of those with authority to define what constitutes excellence.  If we “crowdsource grading,” we are suggesting that those without authority can also determine excellence.  That is what happens in the non-refereed world of the internet, that’s what digital thinking is, and it is quite revolutionary.”

How do we teach our students today not just what they need to know, but how to track their own and their peers’ progress such that we build a learning community not centred on the teacher, but where feedback and growth takes places in a network of peer to peer sharing?

The fundamental mindset change must take place not in the student, but in the teacher. The teacher must be willing to withhold judgement and train students to discover their own flaws and mistakes. The teacher must be willing to ‘give up’ that authority to judge and devolve it to the student so that he/she can be trained to be a ‘critical’ friend.

Imagine the possibilities if this were to happen!

The Big Picture

The Straits Times featured two articles yesterday which pointed towards positive trends regarding the adoption of technology in Singapore schools.

I’m not a cynic, but I’m highly skeptical about the tone of great optimism in both articles.

In the first article, Students Relish Life in the Cutting Edge, the journalist writes:

SUBMITTING assignments in the form of blogs, podcasts and videos and the use of tablet PCs are now commonplace in many classrooms here.

The widespread use of such technology among students is in part a result of the Education Ministry’s Future Schools programme.

One basic argumentative flaw lies in the fact that while the article begins by claiming that submitting different forms of assignments is ‘commonplace in many classrooms’ and promoting our ‘widespread use of technology’, the rest of the article only goes on to talk about a special pilot test programme targeted at five schools in Singapore.

The second article, which makes an even bolder claim, is headlined, “Singapore schools lead the way in tech use.”

This claim is not, of course, groundless as it actually comes from Microsoft vice-president Anthony Salcito. It cites many examples of how schools were supplied with tablet PCs and a whole year’s worth of lessons were uploaded online, allowing for differentiated learning. Most importantly, students involved in the project did well in their examinations and became “confident, self-directed learners”.

Going beyond the obvious flaw of extreme generalisation in both articles (I mean, how many schools actually have school portals enhanced with live messaging features), the articles failed to point out that the examples they cited were primarily pilot test schools, which have a huge amount of support from the Ministry downwards and in a way, they have a vested interest to make the use of technology work and ensure that the money spent on them is not wasted. The results from pilot tests schools are hardly reflective of nation-wide trends of technology use.

From the perspective of an educator, there are too many loopholes or pieces of missing information in these two articles to convince me that Singapore is a leader in technology use for education in our world today.

I’m concerned too that these accolades we earn might result in nation-wide implementation of these technological ‘tools’ without specific consideration of the extremely varying profiles of different schools.

For example, how did the schools measure the correlation between technology use and exam results? Could the improvement be merely because of the use of more engaging methods of learning? What are the profile of these students on whom the pilot test was done? What kind of support and guidelines were given to teachers in their use of technology?

I did find one source of encouragement in these two articles though. It seems to me that technology use is emerging in these schools from sound pedagogical approaches and driven towards helping students cultivate ‘21-st century skills’, like collaborative learning and creativity.

There is mention in second article about how MOE is going to cut down on pen and paper examinations in favour of those which teach team work and creativity. Another encouraging trend and a good idea on paper, but the execution must be carefully thought out and integrated, not added-on, to our current Education system.

I’m all for the use of technology in the classroom and I do want to use some of these tools meaningfully in my classroom next year. Let’s hope I’ll have some positive news to report from my own experiences in school.

The Green Grass Syndrome

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At Edwin and Diana’s wedding yesterday, Pastor Ming concluded with a word which really spoke to me:

After we get married, we sometimes wonder if we could have done better, if there was someone better for us. We always think that the grass is greener on the other side – but you know what, that is not true. The grass is greener where you choose to water and nurture it.

Once you’ve made a choice, the commitment then lies upon the couple to make sure that the grass in your own lawn is continually nurtured and healthy.

What Pastor said caused me to think more, not just about relationship, but about many other situations in our lives.

Do we struggle in our own circumstances and wish we were in other circumstances? Or do we really focus on making our own situation better?

Aligning emotional goals

Yesterday’s cell group message was about spiritual maturity, which is revealed through character.

D. L. Moody once said, “Character is what you are in the dark.”

Recognition is what people say about you. Character is what God knows about you.

The 5 marks of spiritual maturity:

  1. Positive under pressure
  2. Sensitive to the needs of others
  3. Peace-maker
  4. Patient
  5. Prayerful

If there were one area out of the five above which I really want to grow in, it would be to become more sensitive to the needs of others.

It’s such an easily neglected aspect of the job I do, but as I’ve grown in wisdom over the past 6 months, the various emotional needs of students have become increasingly apparent to me. Learning how to meet those needs in a way that is professional yet personal is something that requires wisdom and practise, but the sensitivity to it is something I feel I really need to cultivate and grow in.

Interestingly enough, I read an article yesterday which speaks about the need for teachers to be innately aware of not only their students’, but their own emotional goals in the classroom. Full text is available here.

This portion of the article spoke to me:

“Every kid comes into the classroom with an emotional goal – and it’s not necessarily academic,” Stein says.

Of course, it’s not just the students who have these emotions. Teachers do, too.

“When you teach, you take on responsibility for understanding your own emotions as well as understanding the emotions of the students and the class,” Christodoulou says.

The issue is how to align the goals of the student and the teacher. That means making the student feel the goal is emotionally relevant. Sometimes, teachers can help shape the way the students see their goals and figure out what will happen if they meet them. So can parents.

There is an interesting case study in the article about an 8th grade boy, normally reticent in class. Upon receiving praise from his teacher about his artwork, he subsequently went to deface that ‘masterpiece’. The incident is analyzed as a mismatch of goals. The boy’s ’emotional goal’ was to be a ‘respected outcast’, whereas the teacher wanted to help him express himself artistically.

Although the students I teach are probably less emotionally demanding than a grade 8 kid, I can’t deny that the emotions of students’ play a key role in motivating them to do what needs to be done as I’ve learnt over the past few months. And that’s one of the key areas I want to advance in in my next year as a teacher.

Our department retreat is happening today, where we plan and revamp our methods of teaching, so we will meet the academic needs of our students. Meeting the deeper needs of our students require a deeper, and more personal ‘revamping’ and growth in wisdom to know the words needed and channels available to meet those needs. What an exciting journey ahead!