21 Egyptian Christians Beheaded: the persecuted and the persecutors

Below is a screen grab from a video footage released by ISIL yesterday. Surely by no coincidence, they picked to announce (and showcase) the brutal beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians on a Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Superimposed on the image is a verse from Revelations 20, a powerful symbolic redemption of an image meant to terrorize and paralyze. I have faith that all the angels and saints have welcomed these 21 souls, as well as all the other faithful martyrs, into the full presence of God’s love in heaven. Hope does not put us to shame.

isilIn the video, one of the murderers declare, “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.” Little do they know that the ultimate victory has long been secured, and it will belong to Christ. Hope does not put us to shame.

This has been a very stern reminder that Christian persecution, though far less felt in our part of the world, is very real. Let us pray that God would grant us the grace to have faiths as strong as those of these martyrs, and the courage to profess, defend, and live out our faiths wherever we go. And let us also pray for the intercession of these faithful brothers in Christ who are now part of the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) that surrounds us.

And last but not least, join me in praying for the people responsible for all this savagery, that they may repent and be awakened to God’s goodness and truths. They, too, were created and are loved by Christ who cries, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”


ISIL Jesus Beach(Anybody knows who did this painting?)

Epiphany: all you need is my “amen”

I created this piece while contemplating the meaning of Epiphany, a Christian feast day that celebrates the manifestation of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, the only Son of God, and Savior of the world. The feast commemorates primarily the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus, marking His first physical manifestation to the gentiles, of which I am one.

It is recorded that the Magi brought with them gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and laid their gifts before the Child in the manger. These were expensive gifts brought by kings from faraway, and I thought about how, some thirty years later, Jesus would also accept the humble offering of five loaves and two fishes, and miraculously used it to feed thousands of hungry people.

“All He Needs Is My Amen” by Karen Zainal

I don’t have much to present before my King. But He works miracles, and all He needs is my “amen.” As the Blessed Virgin Mary once said in humble and faithful obedience:

Let it be done to me according to your word. (Luke 1:38)

Jesus had an earthly father, too

After working on all those illustrations of Baby Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary, I remembered that he also had an earthly foster-father. A courageous, gentle, humble, hardworking, and faithful one. Below is my depiction of St. Joseph teaching young Jesus some basics of carpentry.

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Just completed: “St. Joseph Teaching Jesus Carpentry” by Karen Zainal

This one’s for all the fathers and fathers-to-be. A blessed Advent to you! 🙂 I will be away in Vietnam for the next few days, so expect my next post to be in 2015…

The importance of non-European Christian imagery

I recently began creating non-traditional depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. And by “non-traditional”, I mean non-European. Below is an Indian and Japanese depiction respectively. I got plenty of inspiration from images I saw online, and then added my own spin. Both are hand-drawn with Micron pens.

“Madonna and Child as Indians”
“Madonna and Child as Japanese”

Just to be clear, I’m not creating these alternative cultural depictions to be gimmicky.

I have a deep, personal appreciation for such images because they have helped me better grasp the universality of our God and His plan for mankind. I am ethnically Chinese and grew up in Muslim-majority Indonesia. For years, I was subconsciously frustrated and estranged by singularly European depictions of Christian figures.

As my friend Christopher wisely said, it was healthy for Europeans to try to depict religious figures in terms familiar to their culture, but unfortunate that imperialism forced those depictions on the rest of the world.

I’m hoping to work on Chinese and Indonesian versions next, because of these cultures’ special closeness to my own heritage and identity. If you have any suggestions on other cultures you would like to see (some great suggestions I’ve received are Mongolian and Maori), do let me know!

I hope these images will be a blessing to your journey as they have been to my own. Have a wonderful Advent! 🙂

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The Zainals wish you a most blessed Advent!

Learning to love my name again

Since day 1 I’ve observed how students love doodling their own names. That’s the first thing many of them do given any downtime, boys and girls alike. Along the margins of their notebooks you’ll find their names in cursive, block letters, graffiti-style…

More recently, my colleague had the brilliant idea of creating an “Honor Roll” board to put up the names of students who are getting the target minimum B in their regular Math class. Everyone got busy writing their names on individual notecards. Boy did that activity take much longer than expected. For the first time, some were meticulously using their best penmanship, even decorating the borders and background, and asking to start over on a fresh card when they messed up. A far cry from the pages of their Math notebooks (you’d think they’re deliberately trying to veer as far from the margins as possible…).

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I mentioned this “phenomenon” to my RCIA instructor, who pointed out that name-writing is a powerful form of self-identity and self-expression . It makes sense that this impetus would be particularly strong during formative and experimental teenage years.

Your name represents you. It’s how you represent yourself to others, as well as to yourself, and is something people associate with you. While deep in depression, I developed a profound shame of my own name.

I wasn’t too surprised by how I hated seeing myself in the mirror — that happened the previous two time I was depressed and was a natural consequence of an unhealthy self-esteem. What was new this time round was how I hated seeing my name, hearing my name, and worst of all having to say my name.

While deep in depression, I had neither the mental energy nor agility to understand why this was happening. It’s clear to me now. I had come to attach my name to everything I have done, but most of all my failures and mistakes.

I had come to despise my own existence. And your name, after all, is like footprints of your existence — it’s attached to virtually everything you’ve done: essays, standardized tests, consent forms, report cards, college applications, job applications, diplomas, awards, text correspondences, email correspondences, credit card purchases…

Since I was so plagued by overwhelming shame for everything I have ever said and done, I naturally began to be ashamed of my name. It is nothing less than soul-crushing to come face-to-face with your own name, one with which you’ve lived for more than two decades, and find that you’ve done nothing but sabotage and tarnish your own legacy.

Meeting new people was torture because it meant having to introduce myself. I’d reached a point where I’d begun to feel alienated from my own name. Saying my name had become like saying the name of an enemy! I hated having to wear my name tag at work. I squirmed in the inside whenever I had to introduce myself to colleagues and students. It made it hard to be fully present in any situation when you’re subconsciously trying to dissociate yourself from your name, your identity.

But as I make my journey toward full recovery, I am learning to be kind to myself. I am learning that there’s a depressed Karen, a non-depressed Karen. A proud Karen, a humble Karen. An insecure Karen, a confident Karen. A selfish Karen, a selfless Karen. A Karen who makes mistakes, a Karen who does things right. A hypocritical Karen, a genuine Karen. A Karen who wasted many opportunities, and a Karen who is learning from her mistakes. A Karen crippled by doubt, a Karen who walks by faith.

I am not perfect. I don’t mean to say that to suggest that I’ll just have to live with that. Instead, I am saying this: every up and down, every failure and success, is an important part of my journey toward becoming the Karen that God created and ultimately desires me to be.

Hear me, coastlands, listen, distant peoples. Before birth the LORD called me, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” (Isaiah 49:1)

I will end with this beautiful passage taken from The Inner Voice of Love, the “secret journal” of Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who went through a debilitating cycle of depression:

There are two ways of telling your story. One is to tell it compulsively and urgent, to keep returning to it because you see your present suffering as the result of your past experiences. But there is another way. You can tell your story from the place where it no longer dominates you. You can speak about it with a certain distance and see it as the way to your present freedom. The compulsion to tell your story is gone. From the perspective of the life you now live and the distance you now have, your past does not loom over you. It has lost its weight and can be remembered as God’s way of making you more compassionate and understanding toward others.

Can you identify with any of this? Have you ever attached shame to your own name? What’s the story?

Related post: Being depressed did not make me “an innocent in hell”

“But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”

I previously shared the following note on Facebook, but it is something that I also want to share with everyone who reads this blog. It’s been hinted throughout several recent posts, but never explicitly mentioned: I am on my journey towards formally entering the Catholic Church.

“About a year and a half ago, I began investigating the Catholic faith, because I had the honor of getting to know a few Catholics who made me wonder if there was more to it than what I’d heard all my life. Due to personal circumstances, this investigation fluctuated a lot in consistency in depth. But a constant theme I kept encountering was that many of my opinions on the Catholic Church were rooted in misconceptions, if not blatant falsehoods.

In more recent months, it has become increasingly clear to me that I am headed in the right direction, and that this is where God is calling me. I have recently shared this with a few people, and a few others have asked, so I thought it would be good to share: I have decided to be baptized in the Catholic Church this coming Easter.

This might come as a surprise to friends who’ve only known me from my “anti-Catholic days” (you guys know what I’m talking about…). I would be more than happy to chat and share more about the journey thus far! I don’t have answers to all the questions you might have, but I’ve learned a great deal over the past year and I’m excited to share what I do know.

I am confident that I’ve found the Church established by Christ himself — and in it I’m finding true worship, true charity, true solidarity, true humility. And wisdom that comes from above, and the hope that will not put me to shame.

I look forward to being fully initiated into the Catholic Church and the Christian life, and I’m incredibly thankful for everyone who has helped me along this journey, be it through honest conversations, challenging questions, practical guidance, and above all, prayer.

And of course, praise and glory to God, who masterfully uses the greatest joys and greatest adversities in life to lead me to Truth.

This has been the prayer of my heart, and it glows brighter and brighter as I delve further and further into the faith: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.

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Two pieces of art I’ve been working on. Both depict the Blessed Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus (the left in Japanese-style, and the right in Indian-style).

Special thanks to:
Cristy Acosta, Rick Moreno, Eamon Ford, Kelly Ann Zainal, Justine Zainal, Papa & Mama, Karmyn Sindlinger, Michael Ford, Cristina Ford, Isabel Ford, Jonathan Heynen, Kelly Pudelek, Dominic Chiu, Lucas Manuel Williams-Serdan, Larry Bilello, Stephanie Burda, Tom Quiner, Connor Boyle, Chloe Pawa, Fr Peter, and Fr Thomas.

How do you maintain your grip on reality?

About a year ago, I wrote a letter to my future self. It was barely three months after what had been my debilitating bout of depression to date, and I was a little nervous. To realize that for eight out of twelve months I could have been so wrong about so many things, so blind to so many truths, so caught up in the half-lies of my distorted reality — it was a world-shattering realization. (In my previous post, I write in greater detail about the distorted thought patterns of a depressed person.)

I say world-shattering because most of us grew up being told to believe in ourselves, that if we believed something about ourselves then that’s true. Or at least, that what we see in ourselves is supposed to be more valid than what others see in us. Never let anyone else have the final say. They are but naysayers. Trust your heart. 

I was finding that that wasn’t so great of a mantra to live by. In my depression, I believed that what I had was not a treatable illness, regardless of what anyone told me. I also believed God had either abandoned me, or He simply hated me, regardless of what anyone told me. Because it sure seemed that way to me.

I remember being 15 or 16 and watching supermodel-turned-talk-show-host Tyra Banks instruct the teenage girl on her show to “go home, take a post-it, write I am beautiful, stick it on your mirror and recite it to yourself every day until you believe it.” The live audience promptly rose to their feet for a watery-eyed standing ovation. I remember grimacing at my laptop screen, not because I disagreed that this girl looked perfectly pleasant, but because all these women were essentially telling her to completely disregard her own conviction. And they expected it to work? I won’t pretend to know how one overcomes Body Dysmorphia Disorder, but I doubt that was it. I don’t think they let the poor girl say anything, but I knew that if I were her, I would have thought supermodel Tyra Banks was just patronizing me by telling me I was beautiful when I really wasn’t. It’s not going to work. Not unless our culture stopped worshipping self-belief and self-determination above all else. Because sometimes, many times and for many reasons, we are going to be misguided and we are going to be wrong.

Who, then, can we trust to tell us truths that can be so counter-intuitive?

Back to the letter I wrote to myself. I hoped for this letter to protect me against depression’s most powerful trick: the distortion of perceived reality. This is part of what I wrote to a future self who might be caught in another raging mental storm: If that’s what’s happening now, hold on to this golden nugget of truth: Many things in life have failed you, but God will not fail you. If you’re going to succumb to the lies of depression, fine, but this is one thing you can vouch with all your mind, heart and soul is true. Otherwise, strive to know more of Him and His plan for your life, his role for you in His kingdom. Go into storms confident that you are standing on solid rock. . . . You are a daughter of God and He loves you more than You could ever know.

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This was written solely to myself, and no one else has seen it till this moment. I thought this would be foolproof. It’s in my handwriting, and it’s sincere — how could future me distrust it?

But I did. About six months later, I opened this letter again and I wanted so badly to rip it to shreds. I read my own words and chastised myself for being so delusional at the time of writing. For the second time, I became obsessed with the theory of depressive realism: depressed individuals make more realistic inferences than non-depressed individuals. While everyone around me insisted that my depression gave me a negative cognitive bias, I believed in myself so much that I thought it was them who had a cognitive bias — a positive cognitive bias. And I, being supposedly depressed, had the more accurate appraisal of myself and the world.

What arrogance, Karen.

I remember my then-boyfriend trying to tell me I was being arrogant. It made no sense to me at the time. How could I possibly be arrogant when my self-esteem is at rock bottom?

It turned out that while depressed, I lost many things — self-esteem, self-love, empathy, love for others — all but my idolatry of my own intellect. I suppose it didn’t help that I’d been immersed in an academic environment that worshipped the intellect as the harbinger of Truth.

Recently, I talked to my RCIA instructor about my struggle to retain my faith during depressive episodes. He said that we consider the human person, we often don’t look beyond the intellect, the emotions, and the body. Our free will, he says, is a very sacred gift God has given us. It operates outside of intellect, emotions, and body. He has given us our will so we can know Him, and choose whether or not to love and follow Him.

I see now that as a Christian, I must, using my free will, submit my intellect to God. While this must sound like blasphemy to any post-Enlightenment atheist, I declare this unashamed because there is no better option.

To people for whom religion is but a tool of rationalization, I say the same of secularism. It comes down to the question of which is the more reliable tool. Well, my religion is not quite a tool, but a relationship with the true and living God. He gave me my capacity to think and capacity to rationalize. When my brain is “broken” and doesn’t perceive things quite accurately, I can turn to its manufacturer to tell me what I ought to be perceiving. Thank God for the Church that has been entrusted to guard and dispense God’s truths, so we will never be left as orphans (John 14:18) flailing around trying to make sense of everything given our limitations.

I repent of my life-long arrogance and self-idolatry. I will end this post with one of the most-cited verse of the Bible: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5). I used to think this applied mostly to those who “aren’t smart enough to come to their own understanding of things”. I take that back, and I would even add that this is particularly relevant to those we consider to be highly intelligent.

What I needed was not a letter from me. What I needed was God’s Word and the teachings of His Church, and the humility to trust Him over myself.

I know not all my readers share my convictions, so I’ll open this up to you: how do you maintain your grip on reality? Or more broadly speaking, how do you know what’s true?

Related post: Being depressed did not make me an “innocent in hell”

Recommended reading: In Miracles, C.S. Lewis demonstrates how the fact that we can even reason and rationalize is a great argument for the existence of a transcendent Creator. Or go to Wikipedia for a summary of the argument from reason.