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.

Ebenezer

One of my favorite hymns, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” has these lines:

“Here I raise my Ebenezer,
Here by Thy great help I’ve come.”

The song was playing during breakfast today, and Daphne asked me what “Ebenezer” stood for. Being Mr Know-It-All, I mumbled something vague before I realized that, hey, I couldn’t remember (or, more truthfully, I didn’t actually know). So I did what every modern husband knows to do when stumped: I reached for the iPhone and googled.

“Ebenezer” was mentioned in 1 Samuel 7. Following Israel’s God-won victory over the Philistines, the prophet Samuel picked up a stone and called it Ebenezer, which means, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.” Wow.

Yesterday we marked 15 weeks of pregnancy. We pause to “raise our Ebenezer.” By the help of Jehovah, we’ve come to this point. By faith, we move forward, eager to raise more stones of Ebenezer.

chicago

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After wrapping up the last meeting for this work trip, I spent the rest of the day walking around downtown Chicago. Until now, I don’t think I have ever seen architecture I wanted to taste. And I don’t think I have ever enjoyed parks more than I have today. Almost got to the lake had the heat not dissuaded me.

Now I’m seated comfortably at the cafe of a Barnes & Noble. This place has a library vibe to it—the tables and chairs, the people with their books and laptops. And the relative silence. I like this place.

I think I like Chicago more than the Big Apple. There are fewer people. It’s urban but with more soul. I was admiring the flowers at the park earlier and thought, “Somebody upped the filter!” The flowers were beautiful, even in their imperfection. They stood there in the foreground, swaying with the wind, in stark contrast to the mighty, unmoving skyscrapers.

The train ride into the city was painless. Turns out my hotel is conveniently linked to the train station. Onboard the Blue Line, I listened to my Spotify playlist. Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” made me smile. Today is where your book begins; the rest is still unwritten. It was an apt soundtrack for this short exploration of new things.

Then John Lennon’s “Imagine” followed, and that too was apt as the train carried people from many ethnicities. The black woman in front of me with one earbud dangling. The white man in the orange shirt who had movie-star hair and who misted his aviators with his breath. The two middle-aged men in animated conversation and who were almost mirror images of each other—plaid shirt and khakis. I looked around searching for an Asian person to complete the international picture in my head. Then I realized that I was the Asian representation in this car!

Imagine all the people.

I took Daphne on a FaceTime date at the Millennium Park. We admired the Cloud (which should really be called the Bean). I am looking forward to when we can travel overseas together. My hand ached for her hand. Several times I caught myself wanting to turn to my side to make a comment about a flower, a sculpture, or how blue the sky is….

I picked a leaf which I would press in a book to bring home to her.

I’m not really good at being a tourist, I get tired easily. I vacillate between spontaneity and anxious scheduling. I want to try new things but find myself worrying about awkward situations, getting lost, or looking out of place. Each time I speak to people, I rehearse the lines in my mind, hoping to sound as local as possible. 

Earlier, while I was walking, I listened to the soundtrack of “Chicago” the musicale. I smiled. It was fun experiencing you —”and all that jazz”— again, Chicago.

Excerpted from a sparse travel journal written during a recent trip to the US. Every time I leave for an overseas trip, I resolve to journal religiously. And then I come home only to chide myself for not having journaled more; sometimes not at all. Given the chance, I hope to do much better in succeeding trips.

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.

feet

Sharing from my journal.

(27 June 2011)

It’s all about feet this morning.

Before I dive into work, which is mainly with spreadsheets today, I want to write something about the odd things I’ve encountered about feet this morning. I say “odd” only because they have not yet made sense to me.

Dirty feet. This morning I read about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Peter was hesitant to have his feet washed by Jesus, but Jesus rebuked him by saying that he will not belong to Him unless He washed his feet.

Clay feet. In an article on The Gospel Coalition that I was reading, the term “clay-footed” caught my attention. It was used twice in the article. I thought it was an apt and interesting way to describe human frailty. A reference, perhaps, to King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream which Daniel interpreted?

Bare feet. I decided to walk to work today. Not because I wanted some exercise (well, that was an afterthought), but because my car was so dirty I did not feel comfortable parking it at the office for everyone else to see. (The sun casts a very unflattering light on Graham where he’s parked at the office.) While walking I saw a little girl, no older than 9 by my estimate, walking barefooted. She did not seem uncomfortable, confidently brisk-walking the busy pavement traversed by office-attired workers trying to make it to work on time. At first I thought she was alone, but when we both stepped on the MRT station’s escalator, she reached for the hand of a man in front of her. He was now holding the plastic bag I had seen her toting just a few moments ago. He must be her father.

What’s this about feet, Lord?

And, oh, I’ve been singing Keith Green’s song of late: “Grace By Which I Stand”.

***

(6 July 2011)

I am on the verge of tears now. I just read again what I had written above, and now it seems to make sense to me after the past days’ prideful rebellion. I got my feet dirty–very filthy. It seems the Spirit knows I would be in this situation. So He sent help ahead of time… Wow. Unspeakable grace.

I am Peter. Resisting Jesus’ feet washing seems to me at times the “spiritual” thing to do. “It’s my mess, I’ll fix it. Leave the Master out of this,” I tell myself. And so I struggle, trying on my own to keep from sullying my feet with sin. And when I do get my feet soiled and shamefully dirty, I run away, hiding from the very Person who can wash me clean. Until I learn to let Jesus serve me by washing my feet, I will never have a part in Him. I must realize more and more that my dirty feet–my filthy sins!–are my Master’s business, and He wants to wash me clean of them all. But I must let Him. Oh for grace to let Jesus wash my dirty, dirty feet!

I am clay-footed. The times I stand on grace I feel powerful and indestructible. And sometimes I deceive myself into thinking that this strength is mine. Truth is, my feet are made of clay–unsteady, brittle, unable to carry my weight for me. Let me run on clay feet and eventually I fall! But let these clay feet stand on grace–and never lose sight of this truth–then I can “run and not grow weary, walk and not faint.”

I am the barefooted little girl. I might appear helpless, alone, in a crowd of strangers and towering challenges, but the truth is, my Father is close at hand. I need to be like that little girl who, even with her dirty feet and small stature, walks the city street confidently and hopefully, not because she thinks she is big, but because she knows her father is nearby and she is safe. He will carry her load. He will carry her.

***

But nothing lasts, except the grace of God, by which I stand, in Jesus.
I know that I would surely fall away, except for grace, by which I’m saved.
-Keith Green, “Grace By Which I Stand”

sunday

Woke up with—not one, but two!—burning, itchy, and teary eyes. I have been nursing a rebellious Right Eye the past few days and was actually hoping things would start looking up today. But Left Eye just couldn’t be left out of the “fun” and insisted on joining the pity party. So now I feel discomfort in both eyes. I still can’t wear my contact lenses. My nose bridge (it’s there, really, take a closer look) now has reddish dents, heroic marks from bearing the weight of nerdy-thick eye glasses.

I was hoping to get to the early morning service today, and later in the afternoon kiddie-party with Daphne’s family as we celebrate the fourth birthday of little Bastian (whose smile and twinkly eyes make you feel like a superhero). In between, I hoped to do some word-wrestling on a writing project because yesterday was blah and my word count has not risen significantly while my writer’s morale took a nosedive. Plus I got hit by a plastic bottle of lotion falling from the sky. But that’s another story.

From the looks of it, I’ll be spending this Sunday quarantined in my little corner of Mandaluyong. The Gurlpwend called to check on the “red-eyed mister” and listen to him whine, whine, whine—in a very, very manly way, of course. I’ve fixed myself coffee and toasted pandesal, trying to make peace with my lot.  Although I didn’t make it to church, today can still be a day of worship. And I pray to God to not just heal my sorry eyes, but to open my spiritual eyes to get a fresh glimpse of His bigness today.