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Crooked Sticks, Straight Lines


In his book, Biting the Bamboo, Dr Tan Lai Yong shares his 15 years of learning and involvement in a village doctors’ training program in Yunnan, China. His community and medical works, which he started in 1996 with his wife in Yunnan, earned him official recognition, including an award from the Singapore International Foundation and the Friendship Award by the Chinese government.

Dr Tan related that their wedding prayer in church was so unusual that their solemniser did a double-take. It was taken from Proverbs 30:7-9: "Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God." That, Dr Tan reckoned, was the "craziest thing" he had ever done. However, it did set him on the unconventional path that the Lord was leading him on in his life’s mission and calling.

Unplanned Interruption

In one chapter of his book, Dr Tan related an unforgettable experience on the last morning of his field trip to a remote village school. As part of their field training, the staff and medical trainees would go out to remote villages for a week to see patients, do simple healthcare education (teaching village kids how to brush their teeth properly, etc) and talk to the village lay-doctors about community health issues.

On that particular morning, Dr Tan was scheduled to stay behind at the village school to meet up with local government officials as well as to supervise the trainees as they tended to the patients. Out of the blue, he was interrupted by a man who insisted he had to go to a nearby village to attend to a church pastor who had been knocked down and injured by a buffalo. Despite his initial reluctance to go, Dr Tan relented and went with the man, thinking it was a medical emergency.

As the village was 10 miles away, they walked from the school to a narrow winding mountain road and waited for a bus. However, it was past 10am and they had missed the morning bus. The next bus was not due until 3pm. Dr Tan felt upset that his entire morning was “wasted” and he wanted to walk back to the village school to attend to more important matters. Just then, a truck came along and they managed to hitch a ride to the nearby village.

Upon their arrival, the church pastor sprang from his couch, greeted them and started to prepare a meal for them! His mother excitedly made tea for them. Dr Tan then realised that the church pastor had only suffered from a minor bruise in his encounter with the village buffalo. Ironically, he would have felt better if the pastor had been seriously injured and he had needed to give him an injection or two. Instead of being happy that the pastor was fine, Dr Tan felt angry that he had wasted a whole morning. To add to his anger, the pastor did not even take the two panadols offered to him!

Reflection Time

It was only during dinner time when he had showered and cooled down that he heard dinner conversations among his trainees regarding his exemplary effort to make the hike to attend to an injured man. Earlier in their training courses, they were taught the importance of village doctors being ready to go out to attend to patients, or to make trips to village schools to give vaccinations. They were reminded constantly about how village doctors must get out of the clinics into the community to really make a difference in health care.

As he sat there, Dr Tan felt sorry that he had been so uptight about his schedule. He felt ashamed that he was moody and even threw tantrums during the unplanned trip to visit the church pastor. He wished he had been more joyful at an opportunity to serve rather than see his call as an interruption to his schedule. That experience taught him that interruptions might well be the bedrock of learning and serving. He related how it was fortunate that his students learnt good lessons despite his poor showing. They were gracious enough to see the positive side of the day’s events. In his own words, “Yes, there is much wisdom in the words of an ancient saint, ‘God rides the lame horse and draws straight lines with a crooked stick.’”

Christ’s Examples

From the gospel accounts of our Lord Jesus’ public ministry, He was often interrupted by people in need, from all strata of society. Once, He was interrupted by a Roman centurion who sent the elders of the Jews to ask Him to come and heal his sick servant (Lk 7:1-10). On another occasion, when He was teaching in the temple court, He was rudely interrupted by the scribes and Pharisees who wanted to know what He would say regarding a woman caught in adultery and brought before them (John 8:1-11). May we be encouraged by the words of two Christian writers to see unplanned interruptions in our lives as opportunities for learning and serving, and to see God’s Hand at work in the lives of those around us through our unplanned moments of witness for Him.

“If you had slept in the same house or field with Jesus, awakened with Him, eaten with Him and helped Him, what would you have observed? One thing we always think of is that Jesus gave Himself almost entirely to what we would consider interruptions. Most of the teaching, healing and wonders we see in His life were responsive; seemingly unplanned. He trusted that what the Father allowed to cross His path was exactly that — from the Father. Jesus always seemed willing for things to get messy” (Marcia Lebhar).

“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one's 'own,' or 'real' life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one's real life — the life God is sending one day by day” (CS Lewis).

May the Lord help us to see each new day as a gift from Him and any unplanned interruptions that come our way as an opportunity to be a blessing and witness to those around us. Amen.

- Eld Elgin Chan

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