12/29/2014

Beyond 200


Let me end the year with an edited excerpt of my regular column, Big Little People, published yesterday in The Freeman, the daily newspaper of  Philippine Star in Cebu. 

I started writing this bi-weekly column at the same time I started blogging. It’s been eight years and yesterday, my 200th column saw print.

Two months back, when I was in Cebu for a book talk, I met the talented staff behind the section where my column appears. They so kindly put together this write-up, a gesture I will forever treasure.    
 
The excerpt: 

The number 200 is neither interesting nor popular. Unlike 100 which speaks of perfection—the highest score one can receive in an examination or a school card—200 is neither here nor there.

But today, I think the number 200 is special because this is my 200th column!

In my first column entitled "One Very Special Interest,” I wrote about the importance of reading. So 200 articles later, today, I hope I have encouraged at least 200 kids to read. Then that would be 200 reasons to jump with joy!    

In the Bible we find in John 6 a wonderful story about the number 200.

Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee and a large crowd of people followed Him. They had earlier seen signs that He was healing the sick and that convinced them to seek this Man who could do such miracles.

Together with His disciples, Jesus saw the crowd coming toward Him. He asked Philip, “Where may we buy bread so that these people may eat?”

Philip was appalled. Where would they get the money to buy bread to feed 5,000 people?! He replied, "Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.”

In those days, one denarius was equivalent to a penny, a one-day wage for a laborer.  Two hundred denarii then would be 200 pennies, equivalent to the pay of two hundred laborers in one day. Today, that would be worth more than half a million pesos! 

In the crowd was a boy who had five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus took them and after giving thanks in prayer to God, He multiplied the bread and fish to feed all the men, women and children—as much as they wanted—and there was so much leftover!


I see the number 200, then, as a symbol of sufficiency. Even if we think we don’t have enough, just as Philip did, God fills up the insufficiency.

My header changes at the end of the year to welcome the sufficient grace that will deluge us in the New Year, 2015.

Old header
New header

12/25/2014

Gloria in Excelsis Deo


It rained hard on Christmas eve, flooding the road fronting our house.

Our 11-year-old, beat-up car wouldn’t start. So through the flood and rain, hubby tried to drive it while son #3’s driver pushed, hoping it would start. It was stubborn. Some neighbors helped and after a few more tries up and down the road, the car eventually coughed to life. 

What went wrong? Well, the mechanic said, "Anything can go wrong with an old car."

The dark skies wept through the day and all through our church’s Christmas eve service. But as the choir sang, in great jubilation, Gloria in Excelsis Deo, with the congregation joining in, no rain nor disaster of any proportion could dampen the spirit that comes with celebrating the birth of Grace on Christmas.  

Our small half family (half is somewhere far away) went through all our Christmas traditions—a roast turkey dinner, followed by opening of gifts. The turkey almost didn’t make it; it was the only one left in the supermarket. People ahead of me ignored it because it was of an inferior brand. But a turkey is a turkey is a turkey. At 6.2 kilos, it is good for four creative meals.

I got another chronological Bible this year from son #1 (Holman Christian Standard Bible) and a mouse from hubby. (Last year my computer conked out on me on Christmas day; this time, my mouse died.)  Son#2 sent his and his family’s gift weeks ago through the mail. Son #3 promised my gift is forthcoming.

But the greatest Gift of all is what the shepherds heard from the angels on a silent night over two thousand years ago.

Come, adore on bended knee
Christ, the Lord, the new-born King.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.


Glory to God in the highest!


12/23/2014

Christmas Smiles


Except for household chores and cooking, all other tasks belong to me. Preparing our yearly Christmas card, therefore, falls under my jurisdiction. It isn’t a walk in the park.

A Christmas card should reflect the joy of the season. And what better image to communicate it than a smile? 
This is where the problem arises. Except for me, the creatures I live with are camera-shy; rather, camera-averse.

While the world takes selfies, my boys take cover.  The few times my camera catches them smiling is when they are not aware the thingamajig is before them. After scouring my files of photos, I find one or two where they seem like they're savoring the moment. So I quickly edit and put these together.

I had no problem whatsoever with the other half of the family—those that reside in the US of A. Daughter-in-law is a photographer par excellence and she has a way of capturing the perfect moment with perfect framing and perfect lighting. Her boys—dearest grandson Adrian and son #2—oblige and humor her.  All I do is grab her photos on FB.

Here’s my magnum opus.

There. Smiles that could set the world on fire (I wish). Smiles that celebrate Christmas—the day earthlings were given a Gift and were never the same again.

May we all take time to smile as we honor the greatest Grace that came to us on Christmas day.  

“The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!” Luke 2:11 (NLT)


12/22/2014

Boom!


This word has become so common in net-speak. I wondered about it the first time I read it in a post on FB. Mr. Webster defines it as: a loud sound that resonates. But netizens, I soon discovered, use it to mean: great and amazing.

Now I think I may be able to use boom! myself without diluting both definitions.    

Among all the Christmas parties I have attended so far (now uncountable), one stands out: our department's get-together in the university where I teach. It was not only because of the food or the delight factor, but more so because of the inspirational message delivered by one of our heads who, although he may not admit it, is also a guru: Leo.

Unlike other inspirational messages which are often verbose and pedantic in the academe, his was succinct. It consisted of only two words: Be kind.

Yes, boom! Not “What?!” “Huh?” “Duh.” 

This message was exactly what ornery professors (plagued with stress over difficult students, millennials all, whose heads are locked into their gadgets and own selves instead of putting maximum effort on learning) needed to hear.

In fact, this is the message of Christmas. What could be kinder than that sublime act of Jesus Christ coming to earth as Human to save selfish sinners from eternal damnation?

Be kind. It is a message so loud it resonates.

But is it doable? It could be difficult; it is difficult. Especially for someone like me whose patience has always run thin. But with grace, I can try, and may yet succeed.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14 (ESV)

    

12/18/2014

Kindred Spirits


In 1925, long before I was born, Severino Reyes—founder and editor of the Tagalog magazine, Liwayway—started writing Kuwento ni Lola Basyang (stories of Grandma Basyang) for the magazine and used Lola Basyang as his pen name.

Lola Basyang is a character similar in form and function to Mother Goose. In his lifetime, Severino, wrote 400 of such stories about kings, love, and enchanted places.

Twenty five years later, Severino’s son, Pedrito, revived the Lola Basyang stories in comic book form, with illustrations by Maning de Leon, Jesus Ramos, and Ruben Yandoc.

For another 25 years, these stories were made into movies that became box-office blockbusters. 

As a little girl, I had my own Lola Basyang—my Lola Cionang, mom of my mom. She would retell some of those stories (re-published in Bannawag magazine, the Ilocano version of Liwayway), embellished with her experiences and punctuated with Christian values. Often, she would tell her own stories, making them up as she went along.

For years, since I started writing children’s stories in the year 2000, when asked what made me begin writing stories for children, I flip-flopped from one answer to another. It varied from “it’s just an accident to it’s fun” because in truth, I didn’t know why. My most common rationale was, “Stories for children is a category in the Palanca Awards which charms me most because it inculcates love for literature and family values among children.”

(My first children’s book won first prize in this writing competition; all my six Palanca awards are for this category.)

But I think I found the real answer when my family spent some time at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar, a heritage resort in Bataan this time last year. It is a village of restored Spanish-era houses with cobblestone roads near the beach.

There I came upon Lola Basyang. Serendipity! And memories came flooding back.   

It was she, or rather, it was my Lola Cionang’s story-telling prowess that made me fall in love with children’s stories—and now, writing them myself. Why, we’re kindred spirits!

It’s mind-blowing how the grace of childhood leads us to our charmed choices in adulthood.

This Bible verse found in Proverbs 22:6 (KJV) has the words for it, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”


12/14/2014

Owning Christmas


(Devotional reflections on Christmas at the last get-together for the year of the Christian Writers' Fellowship)  

Let me begin by showing you my Christmas tree this year. The white fabric and ecru tissue-paper flowers are all made by hand—mine. All told, the trimmings of this 12-year-old tree is less than P500.

I call it my tree because the men who live with me—a husband and two sons—don’t even know it’s there. When son No. 1 came home on the day I finished trimming it, I asked, “Tada! How do you like my tree?”

“Nice.”

When son No. 3 came home, again I asked, “How do you like my tree?”

“Mom, it’s November 1, it’s a long way to Christmas!"

Finally, the husband came home, “How do you like my tree?”

“You better make sure those are LED lights to save on electricity.”

Indeed, it is my Christmas tree! 

But my Christmas tree pushed me into a pit of unpleasant thoughts. It’s the Christmas season once again and the country gets busy, proven by the horrible traffic.

Sadly, this is symptomatic of what Christmas has become: we have owned Christmas as our personal time for revelry.

The trouble with owning something is, we think we can do anything with it—our own way. Yes, we have appropriated Christmas for: our own joy, our own party, our own holiday, our own time to do our happy things like taking a vacation, mounting reunions, shopping for gifts, decorating the home, preparing Noche Buena food, receiving Christmas bonus, buying new outfits, and for me, trimming my tree.

At the backseat of a Christian's mind is that we celebrate Christmas because it is the symbolic date of our Savior's birth. But, really, what is the percentage of this thought in relation to all the other things sold in stores during the season?

In the university where I teach, in lieu of exchange gifts, each faculty member will give a gift to a child somewhere in the slums of Cavite. Well and good. When those gifts are sent over, the kids will naturally think of Christmas as the time for them to receive gifts—again pushing to the back burner the reason for the occasion.

In my neighborhood, one house opens its gate on Christmas Day; the owner gives away food and gifts to anyone who comes around. You should see the long line of people waiting for their freebies under the heat of the sun, or the rain. 

The less fortunate among us go on a heyday knocking on doors, declaring, “Namamasko po!” (I have come to collect my gift this Christmas!), as though people owe them. How many organizations go around singing carols, asking for donations—it's fund-raising time! 

Driving through villages, you’ll find security guards flailing boxes for money from oncoming vehicles. Every single messenger—from the post office, insurance company, Meralco, to PLDT, leave an envelope to homeowners, expecting it to be filled with cash.  And if the homeowner says, “I am sorry,” he murmurs, "Ang kuripot."  (How stingy.) 

Entitlement. Because we have owned Christmas, we feel we are entitled to receive, to have our own agenda on how to spend it. Naturally the retail business takes advantage of this ownership.

Our Bible history tells us that the very first Christmas—the year Jesus was born—was the opposite of the Christmas that we know today. In the small town of Bethlehem, it was awfully dark. Sleepy shepherds were keeping watch over their flock.

After that Holy Birth, it didn’t get any better. There came the time when all that people heard were woeful sounds of inconsolable mothers, weeping. The magi (which we have erroneously baptized as the three kings) went to Judea searching for the newborn King of the Jews, having "seen His star in the east." They were directed to the small village of Bethlehem. On their way there, King Herod asked them to let him know who this King was when they found Him. What Herod had in mind was an evil scheme—to kill Jesus. He was afraid that this new King would take over his throne. 

The magi found Jesus and honored Him, but an angel told them not to go back to Herod, so they returned home by another route. Realizing he had been fooled by the magi, Herod was livid. He gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and below.   

In those dark days, the prophecy in the Old Testament was fulfilled. In Jeremiah 31:15 we read, “A cry is heard in Ramah—deep anguish and bitter weeping. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted—for her children are gone.”

Our Bible tells us that the very first Christmas, God in all His majesty, became Flesh so that everyone, all sinners, may be saved from the mire of sin.  That is the reason for Christmas, which is lost in the hoopla and noble effort to be generous to everyone.  

In the Philippines, children trek to the homes of their ninong (godfather) and ninang (godmother)  expecting a gift. We wonder whether the reason for all this fuss was ever explained in detail to these children—if at all. 

And because we own Christmas, we often hear these words:   

“Christmas is for children.” Christmas has been delegated to children. 

“The true meaning of Christmas is giving.” This obligates us to give gifts on Christmas.

“It doesn't feel like Christmas." We have assigned Christmas to entertain us.  

And then we hear familiar complaints:

“So many calamities—what a terrible Christmas!” “No bonus this year? Oh, it’s going to be a very sad Christmas.” “My husband can’t come home from Dubai, our Christmas won’t be complete.” “Christmas is so expensive.” This one I heard on TV, “Pasko na naman, walang wala ako. Nakakalungkot, wala man lang akong maibigay, maski bagong damit ng mga apo ko.” (It's Christmas again. I am so broke, I can't even give my grandchildren new clothes.)

Indeed, we have sequestered Christmas for our own—and we celebrate Christmas as though it were our own birthday party or blow-out for a job well done.  We read on FB many plans for Christmas, we see photos of beautifully decorated homes and planned special food for the Christmas dinner.

Are these things familiar to you? Fruit cake, ham, keso de bola, parol from Pampanga, gift list, Santa Claus, Christmas party, and in the US, mistletoe, Christmas balls and wreaths.  We have added so many doodads to Christmas that we have to wade through them to remember its essence. Yes, the definition of Christmas has blurred. Worse, adults and children have their own definition of Christmas.

With other holidays in the year, we focus on the celebration. On Independence Day, we have flag raising ceremonies and wave miniature flags of our country. On Araw ng Kagitingan, we honor our heroes in appropriate ceremonies. On our own birthday, people greet us. On labor Day, Teacher’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, People Power Day, plus all the days invented by marketing men, we focus on the reason for the celebration.

But on Christmas?

Today, there is a growing pressure in Western countries, which has already arrived at SM, to replace  "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays." A salesgirl greeted me last week, “Happy Holidays, Ma’am.” I replied, “Merry Christmas! Bakit nawala na si Christ sa Christmas?” (Why did you delete Christ from Christmas?)

“Yun po ang utos sa amin. Kung 'Merry Christmas' daw po, baka may masaktan.” (Our instruction from management, Ma'am, so as not to offend anyone.) Of the 20 cards I received last year, 18 omitted the word Christmas. 

People have indeed owned Christmas as their own holiday.  Meaning, more and more people are being swayed to the idea that using the word Christmas is no longer politically correct, and therefore,  a no-no.  

Is political correctness taking precedence over truth?   

The truth was, is, and forever shall be. Christmas symbolizes the day the world witnessed the most astounding voluntary act of grace.  It was the day the Almighty and sovereign God took upon Himself the form of a Servant.  

Yes, the One deserving to be served, revealed Himself as One desiring to serve. It was the day the world witnessed the most genuine act of self-humbling. 

So completely, absolutely, totally, thoroughly did our Lord Jesus Christ humble Himself that He surrendered His will to the will of His heavenly Father.  More than amazing, the eternal Son of God became Flesh in humble surroundings, was subjected to human parents, dwelt in a modest home, reviled by the very people whom He served, and died between two common criminals with nothing on His back.    

On that first Christmas, on that single act of human birthing, God revealed the truth, previously unknown to us, that only through Jesus can man go on living in a glorious eternal home.  

Everyone, including hardhearted scientists, or maybe even atheists, cannot deny a Supreme Power through the spectacular things around us: the starry nights, the incredible sunrises and sunsets, the roar of thunder, the depths of oceans, the colors of flowers, and the fury of volcanoes.  Then among Christians, the Bible—a divine revelation of God.

But of all the startling revelations of almighty God, none is clearer than God's final revelation of Himself in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ.

How can December 25 (or the day the shepherds heard from heaven), then, not be anything but Christmas?

Jesus came to earth for all men; we can have Him as our own personal Savior if we accept Him in our heart. But we can never own the day amazing Grace was birthed for us on Christmas Day. Only Jesus owns Christmas; we don’t. Although He gave Himself for all of us on Christmas, we should not take the liberty of owning that divine, spectacular day. 

Simply believing in the Name of Jesus, born on Christmas, our Savior, Son of God, will birth a new spirit in us. In John 1:12 (KJV), we read, "But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name . . ."  

Merry Christmas!   
 ( Photo credit: Malu Tiongson-Ortiz)

12/11/2014

Old, Older Friends


Years wreak havoc on one's face and body. Like violent storms, they leave you physically ravaged. This you’d never find out once you believe what your friends say:

"You don't look a day older!"

"You look the same since the last time I saw you."

"What keeps you forever young?"

But each time I look in the mirror, I am told a different story. Unlike my friends, the mirror neither cares about my feelings nor about me. It gives me an in-you-face, line-by-line account of what I have turned into with the passing of years. 

This doesn’t make me unique.  

Celebrities who have an arsenal of expensive make-me-look-good tricks are not exempt from the onslaught of years. Proof?

I recently met in a party a dozen of my old friends from the corporate world where I overstayed and spent the most vigorous part of my life. One look and I realized (they realized, as well), although very discreetly, we are no longer the same.

Thought balloons:

Who is this old lady? Grace?!

He used to be a heartthrob.

She has doubled, no tripled, in size!

His hair has not turned gray, it’s gone!

This is definitely the geriatric set!


Then the conversations begin. And, without warning, the joy of seeing each other again immediately deletes the grotesque thought balloons. Years are cruel on what the eyes can see, but kind to the soul. Why, we're a new, improved version of our old selves: wittier, wiser, mellower, and sillier.

Grudges, biases, bitterness (a.k.a. bitchiness in our time) have grown so old they are forgotten. What the heart remembers are the excitement and the highs of once working together—adversaries one minute, allies the next—summed up as the best of times.  
Old friends are older, but God so designed friendship never to age. In fact, it grows stronger with  distance, with years in between, with memories of an ancient past, and with a thought that today, we no longer sweat the small stuff, but savor the grace that comes with the big ones, meaning, only those that truly matter.  

"Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing." 1Thessalonians 5:11 (ESV)


12/07/2014

Black Cat


At dawn, the first living organism I lock eyes with is, yes, a black cat.

We are both early risers. It glares at me and I glare back. It seems to know what time I open our gate for my morning walk; it positions itself just a yard away. Then it blinks, crosses my path, and retreats when it hears my purposeful, determined march.

The next walking day, the black cat is there again, as though it has been assigned to keep watch. 

In the town where I grew up, people were afraid of a black cat. As a little girl I would hear adults looking upon this creature as a symbol of bad luck or misfortune, especially if it crosses a person’s path.

But my grandmother, the sage in my growing-up years, would pooh-pooh such idea, “Hogwash! God created all kinds of cats—and one of these species is colored black.”

She was, as usual, right. How could a black cat negate the joy of seeing the sunrise, of feeling the sweat on my back and the breeze that dries it off, and of having the energy to walk for an hour and be active all my hours after that?

How could a black cat diminish the grace that wafts around me with every recorded step on my pedometer, with every breath I take (those last five words I borrowed from a song I swooned over as an adolescent in love with love)?

I’ve been taking my early morning walks for the last thirteen years—this number is another bad omen in our town, but that’s another story—and in all those years, a black cat has mostly been the opening act of my new day.

As cats only have a life span of 12-15 years, the one that crossed my path this morning may be a daughter/son of the very first one who ever greeted me 13 years ago.

Tomorrow, when the black cat meets me just off our gate, it will be another blessed day—just as all my days have been while I can still walk jauntily on the land where the Lord placed me.

“My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.” Psalm 130:6 (KJV)

  

12/03/2014

Write, Win Prizes, and Be Published


Call for entries!

Media Associates International (MAI) has announced:

“Help us encourage Christian writers worldwide. Submit an original devotional aimed to inspire and nurture the faith of fellow writers around the globe. Top devotionals will be published in a devotional booklet for worldwide use in writing workshops and beyond. Your devotional may be selected to appear here on MAI’s LittWorld Online blog, a resource for writers worldwide. Win cash and bless writers beyond your borders.” (click for details)

For this exciting contest, please watch this MAI video:



Yes, that’s me. I am a behind-the-scenes author, who’d rather write than talk, but for this contest I made an exception and took the bold step of talking to an international audience.

I’d do anything to encourage fellow published (and closet) Christian writers to keep writing about the grace that comes only from God and spread the word.   

“Beautiful words stir my heart. I will recite a lovely poem about the king, for my tongue is like the pen of a skillful poet.” Psalm 45:10 (NLT)


12/01/2014

Happy Home


In recent years, there has been a surge of single-parent and extended families. The nuclear family (defined as a group that includes only the father, mother, and biological children) is vanishing.

I prefer to define family as a household with a father, mother, children (biological or adopted), and househelps, who treat every individual with respect, and whose love for each other and God is boundless.  

That’s why when OMF Literature, my publisher, asked me to write a series of storybooks 20 months ago on a family, I chose to call it “Happy Home.”

The characters are loosely based on real-life people who had been an important part of my youth, juxtaposed into a family that consists of a father, a mother, three children (two are biological and one, adopted) and a fiercely loyal househelp.

Two books were scheduled for launching at the International Book Fair last September, but heartbreaking snags got in the way, the details of which I don't want to remember. Finally on December 20, three months later, just before Christmas, the first book in the series will be launched.

It is called Coming Home. 

A talented artist, whose body of work I have admired from a distance, was dropped from heaven to illustrate "Happy Home." His name is Leo Kempis Ang and while making the book come to life, he has become a cyber friend. His humorous/Pinoy style fits the book series to a tee, a joy I share with my editor, Joan. Below are some of his sketches that have been put to bed.  
                   

 
Coming Home has come . . . in God’s own time.

What was also dropped from heaven after the aborted book launching was an unexpected grace of patience.

For someone who was born with a wart called impatience and thrives best in a quick-paced work environment, I received exactly what I needed.  

Wait, God must have whispered in my ear. And I listened. 

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . .” Ecclesiastes 3:1

(I will blog about the details of the launching as soon as everything is finalized. You are all invited to come and join the fun!)