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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joy

So this is how it feels.

I thought to myself while I looked up at my brother as he spoke into the microphone. He held his open Bible in one hand, a handkerchief close by in case tears came. In that moment, Kuya Arnel wasn’t the sibling who teased me by making slurping sounds with his hot drink because he knows it irritates me inexplicably. No—that June afternoon by the lake, he was Rev. Arnel C. Tan, a Minister of the Gospel in the middle of performing holy matrimonial rites.

And I was the groom.

Beside me, mesmerizingly radiant and basking in sunset hues, was my bride, Daphne. We held hands underneath her veil, our backs to a small gathering of dear friends and family. Unless they laughed at my brother’s jokes, sighed audibly at something touching, or howled like sports fans, I would not think there were people behind us. It felt like we were alone, just the three of us—myself, my bride, and my minister-brother—in the presence of the Divine. For months, we planned this event, ticking off item after item from a long list. But in truth all we did was create space for something sacred to happen. All that our many hours of work achieved was to prepare the physical vessel to contain something spiritual.

That day, “in the presence of God and witnesses,” Daphne and I stood face to face to declare our vows of love and faithfulness to each other. The wind carried our worded promises, spoken with voices overcome by deep emotion, to the ears and heart of the Heavenly Father. He took two very different hearts and bound them into one heart with Agape’s cord, one twined by His very hands and which only death could sever. Daphne and I prayed, laughed, and cried. So did many of our guests.

Joy had come to us that day without needing an invitation.

I have been graced by moments of deep joy in my life. But the joy of my wedding day—ten months ago to this day—holds a special place in my heart. Joy showed up, beautifully dressed in the smiles of our dear guests. She embraced us with every word of blessing spoken to us. Joy served us through the hands and feet of friends and family who came together to manage the countless details of a wedding.

I was humbled and honored that such gifts would be lavished on us that Sunday afternoon. As waves of joy came upon us, I remember feeling the urge to do something, anything. Freeze the moments, bottle the tears, turn the laughters into song, make coats out of the warm hugs—I’m not sure what exactly, but surely I must not just stand there and take it all in, right?

But, why shouldn’t I just take it all in?

Joy is grace. Ergo, it does not demand; it gives. We desire and pursue it and yet when we finally hold it in our hands, we realize we do not know what to do with it. Instinctively, we want to make it last forever, manage it, and even manufacture it. Joy resists these maneuvers because it is meant to be received as a gift from a loving Father. Oftentimes, like the morning dew after the sun has risen high enough, joy is soon gone.

This need not be a sad thing. Joy’s fleeting visitations in this life ought to remind us to look forward to another life, another wedding day, where Christ is the bridegroom and we, along with Christ’s redeemed, are His bride. That day, joy will not be a mere guest; she will live with us for eternity.

Oh to know how that feels.

Photo by Sheila Catilo
Photo by Sheila Catilo

this

“Lovest thou Me more than this?”

The question, originally posed by the Resurrected Lord to Peter over their breakfast of smoked fish, visits me while I digest my Wednesday lunch.

“What ‘this’, Lord?” I stall, taking a sip of orange juice and wiping my mouth with napkin.

“This,” the Spirit points out.

“Oh, You mean this?

“Yes, that.

I ponder for a moment, my mind refusing to wrap itself around the boundaries of this

Could it be that it—this—has grown too big inside of me to be easily surveyed? Or, perhaps, it has become too precious, and therefore painful, that I revolt at even the slightest contact of a measuring tape.

My head drops. Even though I am unable (or unwilling?) to take this and place it squarely side-by-side with my affections for the Lord, I know the answer to the Master’s piercing question.

“No,” I whisper. “I’m afraid I do not love You more than… this.

Shame gathers above my heart like thick, dark clouds that totally eclipse the sun.

“But I want to, Lord. Oh, I want to.,” comes the last, faint ray of light.

The Master smiles.

“Good. Now we begin.”

this house

I don’t know exactly when I started calling this place of my childhood my parents’ house instead of my house. I just know that after living away from it and staying in several other places — college dorms, boarding houses, “shoeboxes”, apartments, condos — in a span of over fifteen years, it seems inaccurate to still call this bungalow in Davao my house. My parents, Tagalog-speaking migrants from Luzon, tell me that we moved to this house with the red gate when I was one year old. While my elder siblings remember living in various other places around the city, this house on  is the only one I remember.

We didn’t always own this property. We rented for many years, and Mama and Papa had had to save enough to purchase house and then lot, eventually repair the roof, retile the floors, and do a hundred other improvements to ensure we lived as comfortably and securely as their modest income would allow. This house has undergone several make-overs and repairs, including a 25% extension at the back (Papa’s dream project), but none too drastic to efface my memories of this place.

My father had always been proud of the location of this house. On many occasions he would brag about how accessible we are to “everything”. The market is one brief tricycle ride away. The hospital is less than five minutes away on a jeepney (but within running distance given adrenaline and a life-threatening situation). There’s a church down the block, where we worshiped for a few years before moving to the church pastored by my eldest brother (even that was just four blocks away). Our school was five blocks away, and walking that stretch was easy and cathartic for a teen just discovering life’s perplexities.

I left my parents’ house at 17 when I packed three huge suitcases and a pocketful of youthful ambition to study in Manila. I may have transplanted myself to study and eventually work in the Big City, but not a year passed when I didn’t come back, especially during the yearend holidays, to live once again under the familiar roof of this house, if only for a few days at a time.

Yesterday I sat in my mother’s rocking chair. (This one is new, the latest in a long line of rocking chairs that, through the years, had imposed siesta on restless little humans –– my toddler self included, followed by my nephews and nieces years later.) The creaking sound and the rocking motion are therapeutic and have a curious way of soothing heart and mind. I sat there enjoying the moment and taking in the cool breeze that brought with it the nice smell of laundry drying just outside the window. I looked around and realized that I really liked how sunlight would stream through the house’s many windows, as though it was a constant, welcomed guest. The intense orange of after-lunch rays flattered the narra walls and intensified the deep red of the sofa furniture. After a few minutes, this view was muted considerably when the sky darkened and rain started to pound on the rooftop; I liked this too. How aptly and beautifully this showed the changing seasons of life, I thought to myself. I closed my eyes and felt an inexplicable warmth and security, enough to prompt a silent prayer of thanksgiving.

I don’t call it my house anymore, but it is still my home. The years have taken me to many places and allowed me to experience many things, which, I think, have bestowed me with enough wisdom to realize that home isn’t just one place; it’s not even just a place. Home is that deeply emotional collection of things, places, people, memories, rituals that ground you and make you feel rooted, accepted, loved. You get an overpowering sense of it every now and then, like when out of the blue you sit in a rocking chair and then feel a compulsion to write minutiae about a house by a dusty Davao road.

Tonight I pack my little suitcase, and tomorrow I kiss my parents goodbye yet again before catching a cab to the airport. I will leave this house but will carry with me, in my heart, this piece of home. Always.

the story of us | part 3

(Read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.)

Hast thou not seen
How thy desires e’er have been

Granted in what He ordaineth?
~Praise to the Lord the Almighty

I arrived five minutes earlier than the agreed five o’clock. It was Sunday, and the Makati restaurant famed for its shrimp dishes was populated mostly by Caucasians craving a taste of home (the restaurant is American themed and inspired by an American movie). I settled for the booth by the aisle, farthest from the entrance and nearest the rest room, a choice that would later prove inspired. From where I sat, I would be able to see her walk in. That would give me enough time to take a deep breath and prepare to give her the roses I had bought earlier.

And then Daphne arrived, extra-lovely in a black-and-white outfit.

“She’s wearing a skirt—that’s a good sign,” I thought to myself. “But black isn’t such a happy color… Uh oh.” For a strange moment the gloom of a funeral clouded my mind. But Daphne’s sunbeam smile instantly dispelled all my irrationally morbid thoughts. She eased into the booth with nonchalant grace. My heart began its pounding, and I wished that the ambulance my friends said they had prepared for me was really on standby.

“Happy birthday!” she greeted cheerily. I gave her the roses and hoped she didn’t notice the trembling hand. “I love flowers,” she beamed, and then mumbled something about a gift in her car and a cute complaint about why she’s getting roses when it wasn’t her birthday but mine. I said something in reply which I can’t now remember but I am quite sure was lame.

Daphne and I knew that that night was more than a birthday dinner celebrating my 32nd year. It was an evening of possibilities, when two stories, two journeys, two “broken roads” could intersect.

Continue reading the story of us | part 3

the story of us | part 2

(Read Part 1 here.)

About two years later, the wedding was set. Daphne would be tying the knot one Saturday in October—and not with me. An invitation card landed on my office desk, but I didn’t bother checking my calendar or noting the details. I knew I wasn’t going—I just couldn’t. It helped that a very important work meeting was set on the same day.

I didn’t feel pain anymore. Instead I felt a quiet sadness, nothing dark or depressing, but sadness nonetheless. And resignation—there was no ignoring the impending finality of a loss. The time had come for closing a chapter, for the final letting go, for re-imagining life without any hope of spending it with her.

“Dude, this is it—the end of the road. She is getting married. Deal with it,” I self-talked. My heart had already been stitched up and had healed quite well. The days of heartbroken melodrama were past. This was one last hurdle, and then I would be a free man.

Whatever “free” meant.

But then, in a twist that seemed to belong only in TV or movie scripts, the wedding did not happen. Barely a week before the date, all the guests, entourage, and suppliers received a text from the coordinator saying Daphne was calling off the event. I got the text while I was in Cebu staging a weekend surprise for my mother in cahoots with my sister. Like everyone else who cared for Daphne, I was shocked.

Daphne would call the season that ensued “the Great Sadness,” borrowing from William Young’s bestseller The Shack, which I had recommended to her. It was a time of deep pain drenched in torrents of tears that did little to bring relief to a heart shattered in pieces. Along with all who cared for her, I grieved with Daphne. I felt rage, frustration, helplessness, and confusion—but certainly nowhere as heavy as the burden that Daphne had to bear. Through it all, Daphne would be first to testify that God never abandoned her. Friends, church, and family formed a cushion of grace, giving her space to grieve and buoying her up with prayer and love. The body of Christ was at work, being Christ’s arms to embrace her, His eyes to shed tears with her, His ears to listen when she needed to vent, His heart to share her pain, and His voice to gently speak truth to her when powerful emotions clouded her mind and heart.

“Did you feel ecstatic when her wedding did not push through?” It was a curious (and slightly insensitive) question posed by some “by-standers” who were obviously detached from the story, like one watching a TV drama while munching on chicharon. How could I celebrate when someone dear to me was suffering? The prospects of rekindling an old flame were set aside in favor of being a friend and brother in Christ. Daphne did not need further complications, and I needed time to discern and seek God’s heart.

In His time the Great Physician brought healing and hope to Daphne. As for me, for over a year since the Great Sadness, not a day passed when I did not think, analyze, pray, agonize, deliberate about the next step. Wise friends counseled that if I should “make a move,” I ought to wait it out a bit. (Male friends suggested three months; they were immediately overruled by female friends—some of who were wives of the male friends—urging me to take one year to wait.) The “waiting” was a journey of discerning God’s leading; being honest with myself about the situation and its challenges; sorting my feelings and how they had evolved; challenging myself and my perceptions about relationships and marriage; submitting my heart and mind to the scrutiny and correction of Scriptures. While going through this process, I kept in regular contact with Daphne, but not without some help from mutual friends, who, I would later learn, had been rooting for us.

I was getting to know Daphne again, and she was also getting reacquainted with me. Interestingly, the years we spent apart because of her previous relationship did not seem that wide a gap to bridge. In no time, we were laughing again, talking about books again, goofing around with friends again, sharing about God and how He was working in our lives again.

Everything was at once familiar and new. Many things had changed, no doubt.  And yet some things had remained the same. It was up to me to figure out which was which and what I needed to do about the whole thing. The end of my self-imposed year of waiting was looming. From where I was standing, Daphne seemed to have recovered quite gracefully from the Great Sadness: her walk with the Lord vibrant, her friendships and relationships blossoming, her heart mended and hopeful again…

I had a decision to make.

I read somewhere that whenever you are torn between two options, you should simply toss a coin. It is effective not because it banishes your quandary, but because in that brief moment when the coin is in the air, everything is suddenly much clearer and you know what you are hoping for.

To pursue Daphne with the intention of marriage. Or to simply remain friends with her and continue with the single life. Heads or tails?

In my mind I tossed a coin.

(To be continued.)

the story of us | part 1

It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly
until He has hurt him deeply.

~A.W. Tozer

 

“It’s pretty complicated—you’re pretty, I’m complicated.”

That statement, unrehearsed and uttered to the maddening beat of my speeding heart, opened my confession of love to Daphne almost five years ago. We were meeting over coffee because she wanted some advice about a common friend who was beginning to show interest in her. I could tell she welcomed the possibilities with this guy. After awkwardly telling her I was not the best guy to consult because of my lack of objectivity on the matter, it was inevitable for the proverbial cat to spring out of the bag. And so I ended up disclosing my romantic feelings for her. Daphne put both hands over her mouth—ala beauty pageant contestant—more in disbelief than elation. (It could have been horror, I’m not sure.)

The love triangle I had unwittingly formed was short-lived, promptly disbanded by the power of a woman’s choice. “I think I’m falling in love with him,” she gently declared one December evening. I fought back tears, hoping that the growing lump in my throat would not develop into public embarrassment of epic proportions. After a prayer, a hug, and a final “Goodbye,” we parted ways—she to nurturing a new love, I to nursing a broken heart. Weeks later I got the official text announcement of their relationship.

I couldn’t blame Daphne for her choice. How could I, I was the Johnny-come-lately; the buddy who suddenly dropped the romance bomb on her in the middle of a budding relationship with another friend; the guy without a plan who owned up to nothing but quasi-love. When I ‘fessed up, I was still trying to understand how this amazing girl with the dancing eyes had stolen my well-guarded heart. Somewhere between the endless talks about books, the after-office discussions on life, love, and God, the bantering and goofing around with friends, she with the mysterious mind, crackling laughter, and Godly heart had captivated me. But my nascent affections had been dashed before they could grow into something beautiful, never to see maturity or fulfillment.  Or so I thought.

I had resolved to neither escape nor deny the pain of unrequited love, but instead go through it with as much grace and integrity as I could muster—until God in His time would grant healing. In my grief, I wrote in my journal feverishly, churned out poems in record time, laid claim to all the heartbreak songs ever written, prayed until I ran out of words and relied only on the Spirit’s ministry of interpreting my moans and groans. “The pain is the healing,” I wrote about my heartbreak.

The three of us worked in the same office, and seeing them as a couple was heart-rending for me. Thankfully, the emotions soon became manageable; God had granted us the grace to be able to work together with little discomfort. I made sure I kept a healthy distance, intentionally avoiding any information about how their relationship was doing. It was good enough for me that Daphne was happy. But Daphne was a fierce friend; she made it clear that she did not reject my friendship, only my preludes to romance. Almost one year after they became a couple, I wrote the following in my journal:

After a year, I can say it to myself: I lost you. In foolishness I let you slip away. Fumbling hands didn’t hold you or grasp you enough to feel if you would shake me off or linger in my presence. I was afraid to uncover the truth behind the disarming smiles, the unabashed laughter, and the profound conversations. Was there any hope of romance behind them?

Have I moved on? I don’t know. If I palpate my heart now I’m sure my fingers will brush through the scars you left. But scars are good. Having them means the wounds have closed. No more real pain, only remembered pain. But who is to say that remembered pain is less searing, less affecting?

Thankfully, the pain was not the ending. It was merely the dark backdrop that would provide the contrast for the blinding light of God’s grace to shine.

(To be continued)