A Christmas Word

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Perched on his booster seat at the breakfast table, our one-year-old son reached out his hand and exclaimed, “Aga! Aga! Aga!” My wife Daphne and I looked at each other, checking if the other understood this new word from our firstborn. We both drew a blank.

Aga!” repeated Adi, his almond eyes pleading to be understood. So the newbie parents proceeded to point to various objects on the table — the bottle of catsup, my mug of coffee, the oven toaster, the box of table napkin. Each object, upon presentation to the toddler, was met with vigorous head-shaking. Until we handed Adi his sippy cup. He grabbed it, smiled, and took a generous gulp. Apparently, in toddler Adi speak, aga was water. (Don’t ask me how or why — I have no idea.) Thirst quenched, Adi let out a satisfied “Ahhhh!” (At least that one didn’t need any deciphering.)

This anecdote, one of many on this fun journey with our eager babbler, is helping me ponder anew the wonder and mystery of Christmas. I realize that in the humble birth of Jesus, the Almighty had chosen to utter a strange word — “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us.” This Word has baffled, even offended, many people whose ears are unaccustomed to its otherworldly sound. God-man born of a virgin? Royalty delivered among animals? Holiness that laughs and dines with scum? Divinity that dies helpless upon a wooden cross? Omnipotence that mocks the grave? Gibberish.

And yet this same Word has given unspeakable meaning to the lives of many who have heard Him and — “by grace, through faith” — understood and believed. For them the line from the well-loved Christmas hymn rings true and deeply personal: “he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

Jesus, the Word, is the defining person of history. What we make of this manger-born babe — who would grow up to live a sinless life completely synced with the Father; who would lavish love upon outcasts, much to the scorn of many “good” and religious people; and who would claim to be the long-awaited Messiah, sacrificing His own life as a ransom for His enemies and then vanquishing death — will determine the trajectory of our eternity.

Many throughout history think they understand the Word, ascribing meanings to Him that fall short of His true nature. Mere man. Good spiritual teacher. Remarkable prophet. Only one of many ways to heaven. Maybe, just maybe, like our little Adi when presented with a bottle of catsup or an oven toaster as aga, the Almighty is shaking his head at these misunderstandings. “Who do you say I am?” Jesus had once asked those closest to him.

This Word, whose coming had long been prophesied by ancient Hebrew texts, is alive and still being uttered today. His Spirit speaks and draws people to listen, believe, and be saved. I look at my toddler and pray that one day he would understand and believe in the Word. I pray too that the ways by which Daphne and I celebrate this season every year will prepare Adi to encounter the Christ of Christmas—yes, the Living Aga.

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‘Dada’

 

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“Be a father. It lives up to the hype.”
—Charlie to Will in The Newsroom

It’s a quarter past nine in the evening as I write this. Exactly one year ago at this hour, I was in the labor room with Daphne, helping her with the breathing and relaxation techniques we had picked up from birth class. In about five and a half hours, at 2:40AM, our first child would be born—3.9 kg, 52.5 cm, and really angry. (I’m sure there is a medical term for all that wonderful screaming.) He, Xander Amadeus Guerra Tan or, fondly, Adi, would in turn birth the mother and the father in Daphne and me, new roles that we have been learning to embrace this past year with much joy and trembling, lots of prayers, and never enough sleep.

Since becoming a father, I have been asked by friends to describe how I felt that moment in the delivery room when I first saw Adi. For sure, it wasn’t what I had imagined or seen in the movies. I didn’t feel all chest-thumping fatherly. Or weepy. Or light-headed (thankfully). I felt relieved, grateful to God for answering prayers, mine and other people’s, for the safety of my wife and baby. And then I felt overwhelmed. Then tired and hungry at the same time. I looked at my brave wife on the delivery table—her lips pale and her eyes droopy—and I felt a little worried, but I also felt very proud. I raised my iPhone to take a video of my son—my son!—and I felt panicky, afraid my capture wouldn’t do the moment justice. Somewhere in all that was joy. Oh, joy!—she was merrily skipping around the other feelings as though reminding them of a choreography she had long rehearsed with them.

What they say is true: nothing fully prepares a man for fatherhood.

I remember walking down the hospital after my wife and our newborn son had been wheeled into the recovery room. A lullaby was playing. Later I would learn that it was the  hospital’s ritual to play a lullaby in the delivery wing each time a baby was born. (Nice touch, St Luke’s.) At some point I did think that I was just imagining the lullaby. After all, I was sleepless and hungry—physical realities that my consciousness was just then starting to register as the adrenaline rush began to subside.

Through these past twelve months of getting to know and caring for Adi, Daphne and I have grown so much. Our hearts have swollen to near-bursting. Adi has quickened a part of us that we didn’t know was there. He draws from us a kind of love that surprises even us, one we didn’t realize we could give. More and more, as we love him, our son in turn reveals to us the father-heart of God. And we learn to love and trust Him more, also to love other people more. We pray that Adi will love and trust Jesus too.

In wisdom and grace, Abba has chosen me to be Adi’s Dada. That is one mystery I will spend a lifetime embracing. Tomorrow, we start counting years.

Happy first birthday, Adi-buddy.

Bad Cop

Daphne and I have devised a strategy for giving Adi his oral antibiotics: I hold the baby still while she “injects” the antibiotic solution into Adi’s mouth using a blunt syringe. The full dose doesn’t get delivered in one go; it requires several tries to empty the prescribed volume into our wiggly patient’s uncooperative mouth, taking great care not to spill or have Adi spit out the blech-tasting solution. I keep Adi’s limbs from knocking out the syringe from his mommy’s hand, hold his head still, and manufacture all sorts of distractions, while my partner-in-crime finds an opening. 

After all the action and drama, we manage to get the antibiotics in. Mommy and Daddy fist-bump! Our baby, face wet with tears, then reaches out his arms to Daphne to be carried and comforted, and turns to me with a look of contempt. Hurt, half-feigned, I look at Daphne: “Hey, you’re supposed to be the ‘bad cop’. Why is he mad at only me?” My wife smiles, Adi’s head snuggly pressed against her.

I suspect this injustice has everything to do with milk. Adi has figured out which parent is indispensable. I leave the room, “I think I’ll just go and try to lactate.”

Actually, I go fix myself coffee and count my blessings.

God bless mothers.

Super Adi

Today Daphne and I discovered a fun way to help our little big ball practice rolling, er, crawling. On the bed, a parent buries his or her face under a pillow and then dramatically calls out, “Help, Adi! Please save Mommy/Daddy!”

That’s all it takes to activate our almost 9-month-old superhero.

A baby with a mission, Super Adi gets on all fours and then frantically moves his limbs in all sorts of ways—he is coaxing them to take him toward the direction of the adult in (feigned) distress. Sometimes his uncoordinated movements take him backward or to the wrong side, and he furrows his eyebrows in a look of both frustration and determination. He doesn’t give up. Soon enough, Super Adi reaches his target. He throws himself onto the evil pillow (here, the adult underneath may give out a muffled “Aray!”) and wrestles with it until his parent is free.

When he finally sees the face of Mommy or Daddy, our little crawler flashes the cutest smile—one of relief, pride, and joy. We reward him with hugs and kisses (we’re still working on fist bumps).

Daphne and I are teaching Adi to crawl. With the joy we’re getting out of it, Adi is teaching our hearts to fly.

Not a bad deal.

God in three verses

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These verses, tucked away in a well-visited chapter of Psalms, joined forces one morning and blew me away. Individually, these three verses are familiar to me. But taken together, they are spectacular! In this triumvirate of verses, the psalmist declares a grand truth about the nature of God. A truth so dizzying and unimaginable it is comforting.

[3] He heals the brokenhearted
and bandages their wounds.
[4] He counts the stars
and calls them all by name.
[5] How great is our Lord! His power is absolute!
His understanding is beyond comprehension!
(Psalm 147:3-5)

The God who is so personal that He heals our broken heart and bandages our wounds (v. 3) is the same God who keeps an accounting of the heavenly bodies far above us and has established stellar nomenclature (v. 4). And then, in verse 5, a succinct and apt summary: How great is our Lord!

In my mind I try to travel that distance—from the broken heart to the farthest star. And then back.  I cannot grasp that greatness. The God to whom I address my repetitive prayers for a smooth delivery for my wife and a healthy firstborn, my request for a parking space in a packed hospital, my wish for encouragement to come my way on a particularly dreary work day—He is the same God who choreographs the dance of the galaxies, sustains life on a small ball of a planet called Earth, powers and directs all the forces of nature and beyond…

Words fail me, as they should.

What ought to be my response? The psalmist helps me with this by declaring that God is great—He has absolute power and incomprehensible understanding. The psalmist worships.

Worship, I submit, is an exercise in measurement. In worship, we employ all that we have—our senses, our encounter with Scriptures, our experiences, our voices, our creative powers, our words, our thoughts, our feelings, our mind, our body—as measuring tape. We attempt to wrap this “tape” around God, only to realize that He cannot be fully measured! Not even close. Interestingly, this does not frustrate us. It comforts us. It reminds us that God is big enough to handle anything we throw at Him. That nothing we can build or break can threaten or disorient Him. That we, notwithstanding our many attempts at being large, are truly—thankfully—small. And in that smallness is a miracle unparalleled: we are loved.

Worship sobers us up. God is big and therefore terrifying. As Mr Beaver explained to Susan in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, the lion Aslan, the God personification in the story, is good but not safe.

Surely the God who wields the absolute power that runs the universe in which I am a minuscule, pulsating dot is terrifying. Surely the God who knows my pain and administers healing to me is tender. Surely He deserves my worship.

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He writes in characters too grand
For our short sight to understand;
We catch but broken strokes, and try
To fathom all the mystery

Of withered hopes, of death, of life,
The endless war, the useless strife—
But there, with larger, clearer sight,
We shall see this—His way was right.

John Oxenham

I first came across this poem as a 17-year-old preparing to leave home in Davao to go to university in Manila. Now, with 20 years in the rear view mirror since I committed this poem to memory, I can see and I can say, “His way was right”.

The Wise Writer is far from finished though; He continues to wield His Providential Pen on the paper of my life. Many times with furrowed brows, I wrestle with His strokes, trying to decipher the curves and swirls, the dots and blots.

In my life I have seen countless  exclamation marks of blessings.  I’ve also seen Him place a definitive period to a sentence that, to me, does not yet need to end.  At times I am tempted to superimpose a question mark on what He has thus far written. (And lovingly, He lets me.)  Ellipses are the hardest— I am impatient: I  stare at the three cliffhanger dots, pestering God to keep writing so I can see what’s next…

Through it all, He remains patient and purposeful. He whispers, “I will complete the good work I have begun in you.” By His grace, I believe I am learning more and more to be less squirmy, more still—trusting the Hand and the Heart behind the pen.

Oh for grace to trust Him more.

In a few weeks, God will have begun a beautiful new chapter in my life—fatherhood. I am excited and anxious. I pray for grace to trust Him in this new chapter and in all the others He is yet to write. I also pray for faith to say with all my heart, even before I get the benefits of hindsight, “His way is right.”