Monday, July 26, 2004

John Thava Balakrishnan 1945-2004

I like the way Dallas Willard puts it in one of his books, that we all should live “in view of the heavens opened.” What he means is that one’s life and pursuits should encompass eternity, because life doesn’t end at physical death. Take the long view and see the big picture, in other words.

I’m thinking about this as I reflect on John’s passing just this Friday.

In his last years, John lost both legs to diabetes, had part of his testicles removed, suffered bouts of depression, survived a minor stroke, had failing eyesight, put up with incontinence, and paid the price of years of abuse to his body as a chain smoker. Even before his legs were amputated, he was difficult. He frequently had the look of an animal ready to pounce; he was a certified schizophrenic, moody, cantankerous and cranky - and that’s on his good days. Who knew what he would have been without the antipsychotic drugs he took periodically to stop him from slipping off the edge.

God knows how many times he had been there. The bloodshot gaze, fits of self-delusions, aggressive loud voice. More than once I had to reprimand him for the verbal assaults thrown at his wife Maliga. His failures were undeniably many, as were his faults.

Here was a man who dropped out of medical school in India (apparently ran out of funds), went up the source of Ganges River looking for God (didn’t find him there), hiked along the Asian Highway through Europe, scrounged, lived off the kindness of others, picked oranges in an Israeli kibbutz, and for awhile was convinced the Jewish life was for him. Told about a Christian commune in Switzerland where there was food and shelter, John headed for L’Abri and met its founders Francis and Edith Schaeffer, and found Jesus. By then he was already ill, displaying early symptoms of schizophrenia (which he hinted was triggered by heartbreak). Later back in KL, he claimed he was chased out of his home for his faith. Years later (in the late 80s), his mother - we knew her as Auntie Grace - miraculously became a Christian herself.

Yet in that befuddled mind was an intellect that refused to take everything lying down. We talked about many things - Schaeffer, kundalini, theology, Hinduism, the media, politics, existentialism, always over teh tarik and thosai. Maybe he did, but I do not remember him ever shaking his fist at God for denying him the life all men dream of. He was fiercely conservative, refusing to buy into the tongue mumbo-jumbo (“Our God exists in time, space and history and He communicates in proper normal syntax and meaningful sentences” he would say), and felt more at home in a Brethren church than anywhere else.

He wanted to do 'God’s work' yet ended up at various times an inmate at the psychiatric ward, a security guard (!), a peddler of roses in pubs and eateries (RM25 per stalk on Valentine’s Day), an English language tutor, a copywriter (guess where the idea came from) - and would you believe - a manager with a small trading company run by an Indian national. Oh yes, he was briefly a full time worker with the Gospel Hall as well. He could never hold down a job, but to his credit, he never gave up trying (or scheming).

John represented the all too visible collapse of one man’s good intentions in the mad swirl of defective genes and bad choices; one does reap what one sows, regardless of what you think about predestination. Yet he was also more than a social discard.

I remember that verse in Ecclesiastes 3:11, that all humanity bears the stamp of eternity at the core of their being. In light of the heavens opened, John’s weakness was God’s opportunity. It’s what the Bible calls grace. Because, unless you know what it is to be broken you don’t know the need for restoration. You don’t know the depth of God’s love until you realise it reaches even to the worse of us all; Jesus died on the cross for the stricken and the strong. What John taught me was that no one is better than his neighbour, for we all are in need of redemption. Only, John’s needs were more obvious.

We who are able forget that our ‘good works’ are no more than filthy rags, what more our preoccupation with ‘ministry’ or ‘service,’ as if to repay a debt. We mean something because God sees eternity in us. And what God sees in us matters far more than what we see in each other, or how we wish to be seen by our neighbours.

John’s troubles are over. In heaven where God makes all things new, the new John Thava would be a sight to see.

“What dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause”

Shakespeare (Hamlet)

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