Our last four words

Elder Jimmy Tan // August 28, 2020, 2:17 am

Pernakan grp from Mr Seet's collection

Marilene Seow (fifth from left) and her mum in the front row in the 1990s, in a picture taken with the Peranakan ministry of Bethesda Frankel Estate Church. Photo courtesy of Elder Jimmy Tan/Bethesda Frankel Estate Church.

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

We often ask this, don’t we?

Indeed, this is one of the most searched and asked questions, be it on the Internet or at evangelistic talks.

But when Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon spoke on the topic at our church during a session in our “Life’s Big Questions” series, I could not help but think back to a conversation I had with a sister at our church, Marilene Seow. (She went home to the Lord 11 years ago, in September 2009.)

How could anyone forget Marilene?

She was committed to staying plugged into the koinonia and wasn’t about to take her membership for granted.

A committed member attending the English service and our Peranakan Ministry for many years, she would faithfully accompany her mum, the cheerful and spritely Bibik Seow (aka Madam Tan Suan Jeong. or Aunty Mina, as many knew her) to church each week.

If Mum decided to make some Peranakan kueh to bless others, as she often did, it was Marilene who would assist her. They were inseparable.

So when Mum became frail and homebound, it was Marilene who quit her day job at the factory (as they called it then) to look after her in their three-room HDB flat.

Marilene had two married brothers who provided for them. As she was single and had no other family responsibilities, I imagine it made natural sense for her to nurse Mum. Not that she minded at all.

Koinonia membership 

Remarkably, taking care of her mum didn’t deter Marilene from coming to church or being active in her cell.

She told me she’d prepare some breakfast for Mum, then hop on bus 32 to get to Bethesda Frankel Estate Church. And as the 8am service neared the end, she would quickly slip out the side door of the sanctuary and head on back to the bus stop.

Whenever one of her brothers could spare an evening to take her place as a caregiver, the first thing she’d do was to join her cell, the “Hagar” cell group led by brother Laurie Chan.

She was committed to staying plugged into the koinonia she had gotten used to and wasn’t about to take her membership for granted, whatever her circumstance. 

The late Marilene Seow (seated at the right, in spectacles and black trim on her blouse) with her cell group that still meets today. Her cell group leader, Brother Laurie Chan (far left, kneeling) is 91-years-old today and still leads Hagar.

But taking care of Mum did take a toll on Marilene’s health. In the midst of doing all this good, Marilene was afflicted with cancer, advanced stage cancer.

One Sunday a few months after the diagnosis, as I stood behind during the end of the 8am service, I saw her as she slipped out, as she always did, using the same side door. She had clearly lost more weight. I called out to her and asked how she was, and she smiled, “Ok!”.

“Going back to Mum?” 

“Yes. Goodbye!” 

What did Jesus look like?

Doctors had treated her but the cancer just raged on in her body with a vengeance. Her cell group prayed fervently as did the rest of us who knew. If there was anyone who deserved to be healed, it was Marilene. She was only in her 50’s. 

“So … did Jesus come to visit you?” The moment I asked, I bit my lip in regret. 

Touchingly, the other members of her cell group rostered themselves to keep her company when she became too ill to care for her mum, let alone for herself.

She soon underwent palliative care at home. Marilene was in one room while her frail mum was in the other, unaware of what was happening to the daughter who cared deeply for her.

When I visited her on what was to be the week she was to be called home, the cell ladies keeping watch that afternoon told me she had kept asking about how her mum was doing, even as her mum was wondering why her daughter was nowhere in sight.

I steeled myself trying not to be shocked as I entered her bedroom alone, hoping to be of some cheer. She was gaunt, no, emaciated, but her eyes were wide open and alert to my presence. 

“Hello, Marilene!” I chimed. She turned slightly.

Dear Marilene saved the four words for something she’d been wanting to ask her Saviour.

After some small talk, I spied her CD player nearby and asked what her favourite song was. “As the Deer,” she said slowly, each word a breathless whisper.

As I sang along to the CD, she mouthed the words too. I sensed the presence of the Lord very strongly as we worshipped. Suddenly, I found myself asking her a question.

Looking around her bare but neat bedroom, the words tumbled out: “Hey Marilene, so … did Jesus come to visit you?”

The moment I asked, I bit my lip in regret. What if Jesus didn’t?

“Yes!” she nicely interrupted, her eyes staring right up.

To overcome my incredulity, I went into my old journalist mode and decided to ask a follow-up question, again a rather parochial one, if one thought about it.

“Marilene, and what did Jesus look like?”

Without so much as a pause, she mumbled something. I drew closer, and told her I missed it.

She took a difficult deep breath and said, syllable by syllable: “A-ra-bic.”

“But of course!” I thought. Jesus wasn’t the white man in the picture adorning many Christian homes in the 60’s. Jesus was born in the Middle-East, in Bethlehem, and would certainly look “Arabic”.

Teach me to pray

I was emboldened. Seeing the excitement in her eyes, I just had to proceed. Gingerly, I asked the next question.

I could not believe my ears. If this was her lifeline chance, she sure blew it.

“Marilene, and may I ask, just what did Jesus say to you?” 

There was a pause. Then she slowly whispered just one word, “Pre … cious!”

“He said you are precious?” I was now trying to hold back my tears.

“Yes!” she whispered, rebuking my disbelieving ears.

There was need for one more obvious question. I drew nearer and whispered, 

“Marilene, and what did you say to Jesus?” 

I half expected to hear what many of us would have asked.

“Jesus, please heal me!” Or “Why did this happen?” 

But dear Marilene saved the four words for something she’d been wanting to ask her Saviour.

She told me she asked her dear Jesus this: “Teach me to pray?”

I could not believe my ears. If this was her lifeline chance, she sure blew it. Why would she ask Jesus to teach her to pray? I mean, she didn’t have that many days left on earth.

Marilene’s obsession, even near death, was not inward but God-ward.

I probed further, trying to hide my bewilderment.

Marilene spoke slowly but with conviction.

In not so many words, I understood her simple explanation. Though she was Peranakan, she wasn’t quite satisfied with her limited repertoire of Biblical words in her native language to convey what she truly wanted to express to her Lord. 

“Marilene, oh Marilene,” I caught myself thinking, “here you are lying at the edge of eternity, in the shadow of certain death and yet your one question to Jesus when He manifested His presence to you was one focussed not on you but on Him?” 

Yes, incredibly, Marilene’s obsession even near death was not inward but God-ward.

Not on “earthly things”, but “on things above” (Colossians 3:2). What faith! What astonishingly pure and child-like faith!

I took my leave shortly after I prayed with her. I quietly asked God to grant His grace and mercy to His suffering child.

In another visit that week by fellow Elder Joshua, she told him what she was praying for – she was worried not for herself but for her mum – who would look after her after she left?

He wisely told her to entrust that burden to God. She agreed, resting in the assurance that her Lord could, and would, grant her even that.

A few days later, Marilene readily went when her beloved Jesus called her home. 

What do we really need?

My friend, what do you make of this testimony? In a time we might yearn for a spectacular solution to some pressing issue, I think by now we know the question is not whether Jesus would also come “visit” us.

What do you really need from our Lord?

For He is already near, and, in fact, stays abiding in us (through His Holy Spirit) when we need Him and His words (John 15:7).

What do you really need from our Lord? What four words would you say to Him? 

One day in that HDB flat, Marilene’s Lord proved resoundingly to His dear Marilene that His grace was indeed sufficient for her, that His strength was made perfect in her weakness and suffering (2 Corinthians 12:9). 

This same Jesus assures you, in whatever situation you may find ourselves in, that “You are precious”. (Isaiah 43:5)

If that is so, what would your response be? Remembering that God is not some genie that would only grant three wishes, what shortlist of things would you train your prayer on?

What four words would you say to Him? 

I’m thinking that a good one would be: “Teach me to pray?” Then see what He’d do next. 

First published in READY (Issue 7), a publication of Bethesda Frankel Estate Church. Edited for Salt&Light, August 2020.

Reflection and Discussion

  1. Imagine Jesus telling you directly: “You are precious to Me.” What difference would that make to you? 
  2. If you could ask Jesus just one question, what would it be? 

“God, let me go one last time to preach the Gospel”: The late Thio Gim Hock when told his time on earth was limited

“Death is not the end”: A mother consoles others at the wake of her son


About the author

Elder Jimmy Tan

Jimmy Tan spent the first 11 years of his working life as a TV producer, then served in Touch Media before working in the team that launched the Yellow Ribbon Project. Since 2006, he serves as a full time Elder in Bethesda Frankel Estate Church where he had grown up as an angsty teen. He is doubly blessed by wife and mother who cook and feed him too well, and two young adult daughters who keep him sane.