rewriting

I have long suspected that my writing engine is fueled by melancholia. It seems that the sadder I am, the more freely and skillfully my fingers tap on the keyboard to create prose (or, on very rare occasions, poetry). And so you must know that I write this now with great difficulty and almost-physical pain because, well, I am happy.

Maybe happy is too—how should I put it—ah, small, to describe my present state of being. I am not giddy or ecstatic. There is no silly grin on my face, at least not right at this moment. I have no reason to think I have become delusional; I still see clearly the life and work issues that beset me. But when I reflect, there is no internal angst that yearns release on screen or paper. Neither is there a phantom of the mind that begs to be given form with words. What I have now, I gather, is a deep sense of contentment… hope… groundedness.

In that sense, happiness.

I struggled to choose those words. And as I did, I took quick glances at the woman right in front of me in this coffee shop who is herself immersed in writing. It makes sense to look at her when I muse about happiness because she, my wife of almost ten months, is the source of much of this feeling that has halted my gloom-fueled wordsmithing. Last June in Tagaytay, on a perfect Sunday afternoon, Daphne and I gathered our dear family and friends and, as sunset hues bathed all of us, we took turns reading our vows from our iPhones.

Since that time, I have not written anything interesting.

So, yes, I blame my lovely wife for this dearth of writing. She has not given me grief to take to the proverbial pen and paper. When she smiles at me, I am rendered wordless. Have you heard her laughter? It cannot be properly described by any word I know. She has gifted me with togetherness so that time hunched in front of a computer suddenly isn’t so appealing. When I hold her in my arms, I cannot think of anything but the present moment and how blessed I am to have the duty and delight to love and protect this daughter of Abba.

“You should write again, love,” my Daphne has told me a few times now. I do not have the heart to tell her it’s her fault that I have parked the pen. Maybe I can find a new place from which to write. As I grow friendlier with this blessing of happiness and togetherness I might be able to cajole the writing wheels to turn yet again. This time, with new fuel.

I think I will call that fuel with the same name I call my bride: Love. And by no measure is that a small word.

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.”

when september ends

It’s less than an hour before midnight. Very soon another September is going to end. If I turn down the music playing from my computer, I doubtless can hear October’s footsteps from down the hallway––heavy, steady, and calculated. Midnight will strike and with it will come a knock on my door; it will be October, and he––yes, I believe it is male––will insist on being let in.

I’m not sure if I want to entertain October just yet. But, as with the Months that came before him, October will not be turned away. Whether I like it or not, he will come in and live with me for all of thirty-one days.

“Time flies so fast,” is both painfully trite and undeniably true.

traveling thoughts

My work with the publishing house has entailed some travel, both domestic and overseas. And I’m not complaining. I’ve welcomed every business trip with open arms and a hastily packed suitcase. (No matter how much lead-time I get, I always pack at the last possible minute.)

I suspect I am a natural wanderer who derives an unusual enjoyment from being in transit. Truth be told, I usually enjoy journeying more than actually arriving; while many travelers get impatient and moan, “Are we there yet?” I feel a tinge of anxiety when the bus begins to slow down or the plane starts its descent. “Another half hour of travel, please?”

But I’m sensing a shift in my relationship with traveling of late. Nothing tectonic, but still a change. Let me explain.

The past few months have found me on board a plane more than usual. Except for missing Daphne, having to cycle clothes and other travel paraphernalia, and getting disoriented the first minute of waking up in a hotel room, I think I’m coping quite well. But that’s the problem—I’m just coping, where I used to have fun.

Traveling, I’m afraid, is slowly becoming a chore more than an adventure.

Case in point: Before, I used to always want the window seat so that, atop clouds, I could watch the sunrise/sunset, marvel at the labyrinth of streets and rivers below, and trace the crinkling of terrain. Now, I find myself requesting for an aisle seat more often, preferably by the exit row so I could get more leg room for my arthritic, long legs. And as soon as I locate my seat and stow my luggage, I promptly doze off, sometimes missing the safety demo altogether.

I don’t think I will ever detest traveling, but I do think I need to intentionally fan the flames of wonder. I’ll start by asking for a window seat on my next flight come Holy Week. I fly to Davao very early in the morning; I hope I get a fantastic view of the sunrise.

 

spaghetti, anyone?

Back in college, an American was helping me and my friends explore the Bible. He was a crazy fellow in his thirties who came up with the silliest jokes and the most outrageous stories. And he loved God’s Word with great passion.

He and his wife always had food—chips, brownies, chocolate—on the table during our weekly meetings. One Monday evening, there was a bowl of spaghetti on the table, one fork beside it. I hadn’t had dinner yet, and was secretly wondering how we would all share the small serving of pasta.

I should have known my crazy friend had other plans.

He started forking the pasta, chewing on it in between sentences. And then, without warning, he spewed half-eaten pasta back into the bowl! He swirled his fork to gather more pasta, chewed on it, and again spewed food from his mouth back into the bowl!

“Spaghetti, anyone?” he lifted the bowl, a mischievous look on his face. His offer was met with “Eeew” and “Yuck!” from the group. I was hungry, but surely not enough to partake of half-digested food!

As it turns out, my friend’s demonstration of gross table manners wasn’t pointless. There was a valuable insight to be learned: When we rely solely on what other people write or say about the Bible, we might just as well be eating pre-chewed food! Writers and speakers have digested our spiritual food for us and served it to us in bite sizes. If “processed food” is our major source of spiritual nourishment, we are surely missing out on the really good stuff!

Using devotional books and listening to sermons are great. But they shouldn’t take the place of our reading and studying the Bible on our own. The real excitement of spiritual growth comes in discovering for ourselves the truth in God’s Word, and letting it transform us. Other materials and sources should only serve to enhance our discovery.

Now, I know the Bible can be an intimidating book. As if pronouncing foreign names wasn’t hard enough, you need to consider things like culture and context to understand the Bible’s meaning. Because of this, it is wise to enlist the help of other sources, written or otherwise, to help you navigate the Scriptures better. It is also wise to interact with others in engaging the Scriptures.

What is not wise is forgoing a fresh, nutritious buffet to binge on servings of half-eaten food.

Think about my crazy friend and his bowl of yucky spaghetti. Remember that no matter how inspiring they may be, the words of other people about the Bible will never be as powerful and life-giving as the very words straight from the Bible.

Bon appétit!

__________
[This piece was written a few years ago for youth. The “crazy friend” was Kuya Craig Meyer who is now in heaven, enjoying an eternal feast with Jesus Himself. A few days ago Daphne and I had a chance to catch up with his wife, Ate Deb, who was visiting with their kids from the US. I will be forever grateful for the lives of men like Kuya Craig who have modeled for me how it is to strive to be a man wholly for God.]

space for prayer

I’m taking a Davao-bound flight later to attend to some work-related matters in my home city. Whenever in durian city, one of the things I look forward to doing is attend prayer meeting at Davao Chinese Baptist Church where my brother serves as senior pastor.

Every Friday prayer-ers, many from other churches, fill the wooden pews of “ChiBap”. The church building, almost 60 years old and one of the very few, if not the only one, in the city that still has a steeple, swells as it welcomes the weary, the joyful, the downcast, the victorious—and everyone in between who seeks to join others in prayer.

The program is as simple as it gets. No creative and bombastic numbers to attract “seekers”; no special instrumental music to create a prayer-conducive (spa-like?) ambience; no flashy videos or high-tech presentations to capture the attention of the elusive digital generation. The meeting starts with a word of welcome from the pastor, followed by singing, then prayer and some sharing from the Word by the pastor, and then more prayer.

There is a sense of clear purpose. Everyone seems to know they’re here to do one thing—pray. (Half-hour before the meeting starts, some would already be sitting in solitude, quieting themselves for prayer.)

People are free to kneel, lift their hands, weep, keep their eyes open, all while communing with the unseen and yet present One. Interestingly, there is freedom for prayerful expression, but this is beautifully tempered by everyone’s sense of respect for the silence, the space, that helps the soul detach from the noisy world and connect with God.

In this place, it is not uncommon to see grown men pull out their handkerchief to wipe tears welling from their eyes. A mother might wrap an arm around her teenage son who now towers above her. Students, uprooted from the province and trying to get an education in the nearby colleges, come to lift up to God their concerns.

The oft-repeated refrain from the pulpit is that the Lord is near to the broken-hearted, that He helps those who are helpless. And, in grace and mercy, the Spirit honors the space created for Him in these meetings—to be near and to help. I have felt God near to me in this place. I have been helped. For I, myself, have stained this church’s floor with my own tears.

restless

You have made us for Yourself,
and our hearts are restless
until they rest in You.
~Augustine

It’s a warm Saturday morning. I’m listening to Audrey Assad’s song “Restless,” inspired by the words of Augustine. I have a few hours to kill before I need to walk to the mall for a quick haircut. Then off to pick up Daphne and Gladys to attend our friends’ wedding after lunch. My barong is dry-cleaned ready. I just need to press my pants and undershirt and maybe shine my black shoes.

I’ve been asked to serve as liturgist during the wedding ceremony later. Since last night, while strolling around the mall, I’ve been pondering about how to help the wedding guests take a worshipful stance during the ceremony this afternoon because, I believe, the wedding of Christ-committed people is not just a social event but a solemn occasion that provides an opportunity to worship, to glimpse the mysterious love of the self-sacrificing Bridegroom for His bride, the Church.

Augustine has beautifully lent words to the truth that God, the Great Lover, has created us, His Beloved, for Himself. Our hearts have been fashioned to be fully satisfied by and in Him. And yet we are an unfaithful lover, abandoning the embrace of God in favor of the caresses of lesser loves. Soon enough we find that none can truly calm our restlessness, except God.

I’ve been feeling restless the past few days. Not sure why, but I have a few clues. This isn’t new, the restlessness, but I know better now than to passively yield to its pull which can easily suck me into despair; I know now that I must “find rest, O my soul, in God alone.”

If restlessness is a compass, a pointer, then I pray that God grant me, and all of us restless ones, the wisdom to let it bring us to the heart of God, the only place where we can truly rest. And on the way we worship and celebrate the manifold ways the Great Lover draws us to Himself despite ourselves.

Without You I am hopeless
Tell me who You are,
You are the keeper of my heart
~Audrey Assad, “Restless”

out of breath

My writing is out of shape.

I fear Facebook and Twitter have made a micro-writer out of me. I may have forever lost the ability to run my proverbial pen beyond 140 characters. When I brace myself for the marathon of an article, journal entry, or blog post, I catch myself gasping for air merely a few sentences into the run, my writing lungs reacting violently to the demands of long-distance writing. My rhythm is awkward, my ideas bumpy. And then I freeze, out of breath, writing legs screaming in pain and telling me they can’t go on another sentence.

This is as far as I go for now. Must practice, so I can sprint again.

relentless

God’s love is not wearied by our sins and is relentless in its determination that we be cured at whatever cost to us or Him.” ~CS Lewis

I think C.S. Lewis is either declaring truth or articulating a wish. Or both.

Come on, could it truly be that my shameful sins do not frustrate God to the point of giving up? Why do I find it hard to believe the “relentless determination” of God’s love? Perhaps more than truth, the assertion is a wish? That is, I wish that God would not relent in his act of transforming my wicked human soul; for when Almighty becomes exasperated and decides to quit on me, then I become utterly hopeless and doomed. And that is a terrible, unthinkable thing.

My skepticism about Lewis’s statement could be rooted in self-centeredness. I could be measuring God’s love by my own feelings about myself and my transgressions. I know how easily frustrated I get with myself, and even others, when lessons have not been learned, wrongs have not been righted, promises have not been kept, reformations have not been sustained…

But that’s me: fickle, hypocritical me. How about God—how does He see my dizzying cycle of rebellion and repentance? Why, as Lewis asserts, is He not “wearied”?

Because God sees with eternal eyes. He is able to be steadfast in His love for me in my present state of wretchedness because He sees clearly the perfect and holy version of me, a masterpiece of His own doing. And He knows that the work must continue, each fall from grace and subsequent rise to righteousness is an integral step towards making me resemble His Son more and more.

I do not have to wish for God’s faithfulness. For the amazing truth is, He is faithful—irrevocably so. And by His grace, day by day I am learning faithfulness to Him too.

_______

Excerpted from my journal.

last day

It’s the last day before the New Year.

I’m one of those who get sentimental and reflective around this time of year. Thank God for markers that remind us to pause and realize that a definite stretch of time is ending and another beginning. So while many are rushing to buy ingredients for their midnight feast, or trooping to the beach, or traveling to be home with loved ones, I take a retreat.

Here I am, the lone customer at the quaint coffee shop that’s just a block and a half away from our house in Davao. I’ve chosen a blended coffee drink with chocolate and mint as my license to overstay in this laptop-user-friendly place with an abundance of extension cords. They’re still playing Christmas songs (now playing: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”).

Here’s how I see this “retreat” unfolding. I will revisit journal entries, blogs, Facebook status posts, memories, and whatever will give me a big picture of the year that was. I will probably surf the net to read articles from my favorite sites. I will pray, yes, but probably not in a very coherent way as I am wont to go off-tangent in my prayers. Maybe it’s a good idea to write my prayers; but then writing is its own distraction — I might end up worrying about grammar and style more than content and honesty. Anyways, however it gets done, I will pray — here in this little coffee shop corner — in between sipping coffee, in between sentences of writing in my journal, in between thoughts of my beloved…

Today, the last day of 2010, I retreat to “taste and see that the LORD is good.”