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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singing a prayer

We’re blind but pray for eyes to see
Where we’re bound, Lord, make us free
Stained, we plead for purity

I believe it is to present-day evangelicalism’s impoverishment that reciting from a prayer book or uttering prayers written by other believers (usually in formal, difficult language) is somehow deemed less spiritual compared to saying spontaneous, self-composed prayers. The latter is considered more sincere and potent owing to its being more personal; the former reeks of tradition and is therefore frowned upon by many today for being “scripted”. And yet, it is interesting how the “personal” prayers are oftentimes filled with overused christianese—“cover us with Your precious blood”, “for the nourishment of our bodies”, “expansion of Your kingdom”—thereby robbing the prayers of, ironically, personality and freshness. Modern evangelicals who discover old prayer books, hymns, and recorded prayers are surprised to stumble upon a fresh pathway to the heart of the Almighty.

Personally, when I feel too overwhelmed to shape a prayer with my own words, I have found it refreshing to borrow another Christian’s words and let those rise to the God who hears, whose heart is inclined not to my words but to my very heart.

Of late I have been praying this prayer-in-song by Steve Green, which in turn was inspired by reformer Martin Luther’s first of 95 theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” I first heard this song at a prayer meeting at Davao Chinese Baptist Church.

Here, have a listen. And, yes, pray.

“Penitent, we breathe Your name.” Amen.

blogger whines

I am convinced more than ever that Facebook and Twitter have both conspired to fan the nasty flames of my blogging indolence. (And, yes, they’re also to blame for my heightened self-centeredness and paranoia.)

I woke up one dark morning and realized I could not write more than 140 characters at a time. Horrors!

Worse, any attempt at “long-distance” writing is frequently interrupted by the urge—nay, need—to check friends’ post so I can “like”, comment, retweet, or get lost following links to pictures, videos, articles, or what-not.

Don’t forget to punctuate with an apt emoticon: 🙂 :/ 😛 😀 ❤ or “hehe”, “haha”, or “huhu.” I don’t use “LOL”.

I have never been a consistent blogger to begin with, but since my love affair with social media’s mini-posts, the inconsistency has intensified to an alarming level.

Believe me, I have not taken the matter sitting down. Well, maybe I have, but only literally: I’ve sat in front of my computer many times in the past month attempting to break the blogging dry spell.

I struggled, despaired, and self-pitied (more than usual), only to churn out half-a-dozen drafts, each never maturing to more than a few sentences.

I’ve read articles—yes, picked up from friends’ FB and Twitter links—that bemoan or celebrate the way social networking media is dramatically changing the way humans (at least the chunk of humanity that has a modem) are thinking, learning, and relating. And writing!

Oh I feel the change.

See, this blog post even looks like a patchwork of Facebook status messages and tweets.

Woe is @aleks_tan.

Then again, maybe that’s the way to win the battle to regain blogging and “long-distance” writing momentum.

Think of each sentence or two as an independent mini-post.

Assemble and then hope the end product resembles something readable, understandable, even “like”-able.

#bloggerwhines

suffering and hope

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:20)

Those who teach a Christianity that downplays suffering to near-absence in the believer’s life is not proclaiming truth. Paul teaches that “creation groans,” that believers “groan inwardly” with it, and that this turmoil is intended to draw many to God’s kingdom.

The world is restless, oppressed by sin and its deathly consequences. No matter how the ungodly deny it, a sense of wrongness pervades the earth. Something is amiss. And God’s children sense and suffer this along with the world. But our suffering, thankfully, is not without hope. In fact, it is our hope in Christ which we are called to be witnesses of to a groaning world.

Contrary to many who preach a bed-of-roses Christianity, the presence of suffering in your life is not exclusively a result of your disobedience or demonic oppression. Suffering in a believer’s life is a given. More often than not, it is a God-ordained necessity, even a gift—to refine a believer’s faith, to strengthen his hope, to rid his heart of lesser loves. All this, not for the believer’s sake, but for God’s glory.  Instead of asking, “Why am I suffering?” maybe we should ask, “How am I suffering?” and “To what end am I suffering?”

Suffering ought not to bring us to despair, but to hope—on our knees. When in suffering we pray, God’s Spirit ministers to us. When suffering’s intensity renders praying with words impossible or inadequate, God’s Spirit translates our moans and groans so that they rise to the Father as crystal-clear prayers that touch His heart.

Thank you, Father, for my suffering. May I honor You in my suffering.

_______
This devotional note was written for Scripture Union’s 2011 Quiet Time Guide,
Light to My Path Each Day. Published in the Philippines by OMF Literature, Inc.

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.

‘welrusten’ – i think

My coworkers and I took a visiting Dutch guy to the TriNoMa mall tonight. Over crepe and hot drinks, he asked us about the Tagalog translation for good night. And we were stumped. The closest we could come up with was magandang gabi—which is actually good evening.

Hmm… Ano nga ba?

He ended up teaching us how to say good night in Dutch instead. If I remember correctly what he wrote on the table napkin, it’s welrusten. Now remembering how it’s spelled is one thing; getting the pronunciation right is quite another. I tried hard but couldn’t quite get it right.

I remember from one of my college classes that past a certain age, we become deaf to certain consonant sounds that are not in our native language. Maybe that cut-off is thirty.

One more week to go before I say welrusten to my twenties and wake up to a new decade.

(Got a text from my Dutch friend after posting this entry. It’s “welterusten.” I knew it didn’t look quite right! Aaagh.)

cs lewis on reading

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented….

[I]n reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

Thanks to my friend Polaris, a voracious reader and gifted writer, for posting this same quote on her blog.