The words of the John Wesley’s New Year’s Eve service thrilled me—and struck me as a little unfair.
Christ has many services to be done.
Some are more easy and honorable,
others are more difficult and disgraceful.
Some are suitable to our inclinations and interests,
others are contrary to both.
In some we may please Christ and please ourselves.
But then there are other works where we cannot please Christ
except by denying ourselves. …
Be satisfied that Christ shall give you your place and work.
I mean, I was 14 and had a lot more school ahead of me, but I liked reading and writing, and there were probably many okay-paying jobs that would “please Christ” while also pleasing me a lot.
And I liked my country, too. I was pretty happy here. Some of my other Malaysian Chinese friends weren’t, because it was harder for people who weren’t ethnically Malay to get into public universities, and because their parents said that Malays got lots of advantages in business. But my family didn’t have any business investments, and I was hoping to get a scholarship to the U.S. And most of my classmates and I talked to each other in a mix of Malay and English, whatever races we were.
So, by the standards of the New Year’s Eve covenant service, I had it easy. I was blessed, I guess.
Of course, if you’d asked 14-year-old me if I would fold all my siblings’ clothes “freely and with a willing heart” as a service to Christ, I would probably have shown you that I was blessed with (blind) faith in my capacity for sarcastic retorts. I was reading the covenant service like a career handbook—for me, a pleasant career handbook—not as an encompassing commitment to God’s guidance in all moments of life, laundry and all.
Some time later, I came across something that sounded like it did want to be a career guide. Frederick Buechner wrote that:
The kind of work God usually calls you to, is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do, and (b) that the world most needs to be done. … The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
But that didn’t sound quite right either. So many people in the world were in situations where “deep gladness” seemed impossible; whether because of dictators and wars or large families and dead-end jobs. And many others just hadn’t found any work that satisfied them. If that was the kind of work God “usually” called people to, then I “usually” enjoyed doing the laundry. Also, wasn’t it selfish to pursue your own happiness, when so many people were in decidedly unhappy situations?
Also around the time when I was 14, my family and I were in the car when my father told us that, at some point in our lives, we should choose to put down roots somewhere. “It doesn’t have to be Malaysia, but I think you will have a richer life if you throw in your lot with a particular place.”
For years after that, I said that I wanted to spend my life and my work in Malaysia because I chose to love it. But “choose to love” isn’t entirely accurate; sort of like how it isn’t accurate when I’d tell economics-inclined friends in the U.S. and the U.K. that I was planning to go home after I finished studying because I had more comparative advantage there, rather than trying to be one of fifty million education policy wonks in D.C. or London.
My husband wasn’t especially flattered when I once informed him that I’d “chosen to love” him. Sometimes I do decide to behave as though I love someone whom I’d rather be very far away from, and sometimes that choice has grown into real affection. Still, when my husband and I started a relationship, it wasn’t a disinterested commitment or a foot-dragging sacrifice. It did—and does—require some sacrifice; and I do believe that it aligned with God’s will; but I benefit tremendously from our marriage.
In an essay titled “The weight of glory”, C.S. Lewis argued that it is mercenary to pursue something for the wrong reward, such as pursuing a love interest for money. However, it legitimate, even good, to pursue something for its “proper reward”, such as pursuing a love interest for marriage—or, presumably, building a career to serve global needs and enjoy “deep gladness”.
I am far from having a career (although I’ve rushed headlong through various schools in various countries), but I’m increasingly certain that my “place and work” involve reading and writing about education policy in Malaysia.
While I’ve arrived at this certainty with less bumbling than I deserve, the commitment to be in Malaysia hasn’t always been “suitable to [my] inclinations and interests”, as the Wesley covenant service puts it. I felt most useful to my immediate communities when I was an undergrad in the U.S., and freest to enjoy my surroundings as a master’s student in England. The stories in my head are Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, not Hang Tuah and Journey to the west—and, in this piece, I’ve quoted a lot of dead white men (although Buechner is still alive, and my father is a live Malaysian). I’ll soon be going back to the U.K. to start a PhD. It would be tempting to stay.
But G.K. Chesterton tells me not to:
Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
For the last few months, my day-to-day work has been writing a kind of fairy tale: I have been researching and writing about education policies that will not foreseeably be implemented unless drastic changes happen in Malaysia; but that, if implemented, could grow our ragtag education system into something good, even beautiful. I want to show that it is possible to defeat some of our dragons—in this instance, terrible injustices, horrifying wastage, and bureaucracy gone wild. For now, I’m sparring on a very small and nerdy battleground. There are many bigger and worthier battlefields in Malaysia and elsewhere. Still, I have felt deep satisfaction from this work. I have also felt like I am waving around a blunt sword and hitting nothing but my head against the wall, but that comes with the job and my natural clumsiness.
I don’t know what bogeys God might want me to hack at in the future, but I do know that He will give me the right armor and help me bear the blisters.