Gift Exchange

Why do people give gifts on Christmas?

Many speculate that the three wise men who traveled hundreds of miles to pay Jesus homage with gifts started it all.  When they finally “saw the child and his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11 (NLT.)

I personally believe we give gifts on Christmas because Jesus gave Himself as a Gift to all. In our own little ways, we want to emulate that unparalleled gift-giving.

Unfortunately, gift exchange today has become so commercialized, even taxing. Yet give gifts we “must” and spend weeks shopping, wrapping, and tagging.

We simplified all that at our OMF Lit’s Christian Writers’ Fellowship (CWF) Christmas party:  “Bring a book you love to be exchanged with someone’s.”
Days before the party, I kept changing my mind about which book to give away. If you love books as the CWF members do, you know that one of the most difficult things to do is to part with a book you love.

Sure enough, the words spoken at the party were about (each had to explain the book he was sending off), with apologies to Shakespeare, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

“I bought many copies of this book because I wanted family and friends to read it. And now this is my last copy and . . .”

“This book was such a blessing to me. I’d love to keep it forever but . . .”

“I love this book so much, it makes me cry even if I read and re-read it. But it’s about time someone else is given the chance to cry . . .”

“This is my favorite book, but I discovered there are still copies at a book store so I am giving it away.”

“Before I became a Christian, I read lots of apologetics. Now I know the truth so I am giving one away.”

There are many more quotable quotes but I got so excited when I received my book, I missed taking down more notes.    

Good-bye . . . (left) and Hello! (right)

What a meaningful Christmas gift (I mean, book) exchange!


Red Leaves

Over coffee, between the Sunday worship and Sunday school, our two pastors and I had some kind of a speculative discourse (some people call it idle talk).

“Do you think we would all look the same in our glorified bodies in heaven?” I asked.

“Definitely not,” they stressed.

“Just look at how diverse creation is,” one explained

“Yeah, not even identical twins look exactly alike,” the other added.

I brooded over those thoughts as I changed my header for this blogsite. When I think leaves, I think only green (in different hues and shades)—even if I had gazed at and oohed over many autumn leaves.

Of course leaves come in different colors! We studied in grade school the three pigments that color leaves: chlorophyll (green) carotenoid (yellow, orange, and brown) anthocyanin (red).

And because it is Christmas, we see poinsettias—red leaves—adorning shops, homes, and other public places.

The Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), which is indigenous to Mexico, derived its name from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico, who later brought the plant to the US in 1825.

The plant’s leaves are actually all green initially. But because it is so sun sensitive, it cannot produce chlorophyll when it is deprived of enough light.  In a state of darkness, the only color that it can produce is red.

If you have a Poinsettia plant, bring it to a dark place. Soon it will oblige you and, through a process called photoperiodism, it will give you nothing but red leaves.

There are many other plants with red leaves such as those in my collage.

Our Creator’s creativity is boundless. Just look at all the unlimited shapes, sizes, and colors of anything visible or even under a microscope.

If even leaves aren’t colored the same, then glorified bodies will be more varied than we could ever imagine.

“O LORD, what great works you do! And how deep are your thoughts.” Psalm 92:5 (NLT)

Merry Christmas!


Cold Turkey

This idiom means, “Stop doing or using something abruptly and completely.”

It held true for my family on Christmas eve, last night. We stopped our traditional roast-turkey dinner at home, cold turkey.

I remember each annual roast turkey prepared by Tony in the old days (when my three boys were still growing up). Then Manang Vi, our long-time househelp, and son #3 in the years that followed (when son #2 had started his own family abroad) took over—up until last year when we opted for a ready-made bird ordered online. It was because Manang Vi had retired and son #3 was helpless without her.

The prospect of another pre-ordered turkey this year was unappealing. So we agreed to dine on some chef’s turkey in a nearby hotel.     

(Upper left and right) The boys give the bird a once-over. 
Gift unwrapping (left); a tree I didn't have to trim this year.
It wasn’t nearly as good as our home-cooked turkey year after year. Not because of its taste (it was tender and yummy), but because it didn’t create for us memories—recorded on countless photos—of planning, of shopping, and of anticipating how it would finally turn out.    
I feel wistful, as I guess people often do when the many Christmases they have celebrated with family wax and wane with the tides of time.

But I also feel joyful, as I reflect on that first Christmas when Christ was born to save those who believe.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God . . .” Ephesians 2:8 (ESV)


CHRISTMAS: The soil of humility

(I was tasked to be the devotional speaker at our OMF Christian Writers' Fellowship [CWF] Christmas party last week. Some of those who failed to attend have requested that I post my reflections. Sharing with you the abridged version.)        

When I reached the age of reason, the first thing that would come to my mind on and about Christmas was: HUMILITY. I’d imagine the circumstances of Jesus’ birth—no room in the inn, manger, shepherds, etc. 

Why would the Greatest of all, the Owner of all, the Wisest of all, and the One who needs nothing else would come to an earth filled with evil men and be birthed as One of them?

Incredible. But such is humility—inconceivable, mind-blowing, and hardly achievable by mortals with a sinful heart. Tim Keller wrote in Christianity Today, “Humility is so shy. If you begin talking about it, it leaves.”

And here I am talking about it tonight. It’s almost Christmas after all, and if we can put a date on when humility was birthed or came into our consciousness, it was on Christmas.

The word humility is from the Latin word humilis, meaning “low, lowly.”  It literally means “on the ground,” from humus (earth). As humans, we are “lowly creatures of earth.”

But do we see ourselves that way? The way we really are? Meaning, are we humble? Are you? Am I?

Our pastor said in one of his sermons, “If you say—or even just think that you are humble—you are not.”

And yet, humility is crucial for you and me as Christian writers.  Because we can only receive Christ through meekness and humility, upon which we hinge all our writings. Matthew 5:3 says, “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him.” In verse 5, “God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.”     
Now knowing how BIG God is in relation to our humanity, how can we not feel small?

Philippians 2:6-8 spells it out for us: “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”

Can we even come close to such humility?

Jesus’ humility was a planned, conscious act.

Let me digress a bit and mention a planned, conscious act as an illustration that is closest to my circle. I personally think that some of the humblest human beings on earth—and that is not just to make them feel good—are the book editors.


Invisible People

In making our Christmas gift list, many of us suddenly remember all the people we ignored (those whose eyes we never met; whose voices we never heard; and whose names we didn’t bother to ask) all through the year. Swiftly, we (I am actually talking to myself here) add them to our list. 

This list—perhaps due to guilt or an itch to give because it’s the season of giving—includes the invisible people around the neighborhood and in the places we go to or pass through regularly.

On Christmas, we acknowledge their existence and at last, they become visible.  

And who are they? Those who make our lives better all year through: the street cleaners, the garbage men, the traffic policemen, the janitors in our offices, the messengers, and security guards, to name a few. Listing them is like atoning a one-year-old sin of omission.

I read somewhere about a homeless guy who really thought he was invisible. He roamed the streets night and day. But nobody, not one, ever glanced his way or exchanged a word with him. One day, however, a little boy gave him a Christian pamphlet.

Stunned, the man asked, “This kid can see me?! How is that possible? I am invisible!”

This may not be a true story, but it illustrates how unnoticed people feel about themselves.

Sometime ago, as I was labelling my Christmas gifts for the invisible people who figured in my places of work, I couldn’t write one name. Not only did I feel mortified, I felt like I dishonored them. After I had researched and finally written down all their names, I personally handed each one my gift, calling him/her by name for the first time.

“Merry Christmas, Burnok/Mayet/Erning, etc.” The smiles they gave me in return were priceless grace, as though raising the cost of the gifts I had wrapped for them to the price of gold. 

A bit late for me to learn a lesson, but since then I have tried to know better the people I deal with regularly by first, knowing their names, and second, making a connection. A simple “Hi, Maria!" or, “How are you doing, Mario?” can lift her/his spirits.

Such is one of the countless life lessons I have learned from Christmas to Christmas.  

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35 (NIV)

Photo credit


A Tradition Ends

Our family tradition of putting up a tree every Christmas has come to an end.

It was a tradition I began when I Tony and I had our son #1 in the 70s.  It seemed like the right thing to do, a creative expression of sorts. Year after year, I would have a different motif which took me the whole year to dream up and the whole day to put up.

I know all about its pagan origins and why it is not necessary to celebrate the birth of our Messiah, but I enjoyed the activity.   Perhaps because my long-time househelp, Manang Vi, would nag me about our yearly and all-day ritual.

This year, however, there is no Manang Vi. She passed on last month, and it feels like we have lost not only a tree enthusiast but a family member who shared our traditions. 

“I don’t think I will put up a tree this Christmas,” I thought aloud.

“Good idea,” Tony immediately replied, solving my indecision.

I skipped telling son #1 and son #3, because from my observation over the years (since they reached the age of enlightenment), they are no longer Christmas tree fans.

Another good idea was the announcement by our church’s youth pastor: “We are raising funds for the December Youth Camp out of town. If you want to get rid of your junks, we’d be glad to pick them up.”

It was an ideal time to visit our storeroom, which had been under the exclusive jurisdiction of Manang Vi.


I needed a face mask to protect me from years of dust covering old suitcases, golf clubs, bowling balls, paintings, baskets, knick-knacks, plaques, equipment, trophies, plus all other unrecognizable doodads—and my Christmas tree and heaps of Christmas decors!

With the help of Bonna, Manang Vi’s former adjutant, and who is now trying super hard to fill in Super V’s shoes; and Sammy, driver of son #3, I packed 75% of the storeroom’s denizens for our church's youth fund drive. After thorough cleaning, the once jam-packed room might have said, “What a relief!”

What to do with the Christmas tree and old decors? Plenty. Just twist, cut, shred, combine, separate, and mutilate—with no theme in mind.

Expenses for the decor: zippo.

Fund for the youth: almost there.

Grace for the home: much more than we deserve.

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18 (NIV)


Young Writers Radiate (Day 2)

Day 2 of “Radiate: Young Writers’ Workshop” was held exactly a week after the first.

By this time, the 22 participants had already written their second essay, which—after some tweaking or editing—would be included in the book project we were preparing for.

We (CSM editorial team and I) spent a large part of the day on feed-backing: evaluating and discussing their second work, while referring to the basic writing principals we learned on day 1.

Some of the essays made me tear up, some made me laugh. The harvest was plentiful.

We agreed on the importance of journaling, every day. Writing for the Lord is not a sporadic when-I-have-time activity. It takes more than a laptop, or pen and paper, or a special time reserved just for writing—it takes all of oneself.
We analyzed why a writer needs to re-write and re-write after his/her first draft.

We assessed our general writing output: why good enough is not nearly good enough.

As we bade good-bye—to meet again at the book launching, for sure—we promised ourselves to continue honing the gift of writing entrusted to all 22 + 1 (me) during the two-day CSM workshop. And that we should always reflect the radiance of God’s marvelous grace in every word we write.  

"Writing should be for God's glory alone."
"Your words should help heal and inspire others."
"Make the reader see and feel exactly what you mean."
"From today, start writing your own story of grace."  
"This is the beginning of an amazing journey."


Young Writers Radiate (Day 1)

As far back as February this year, this training/workshop—held recently, nine months later—was  already announced by Church Strengthening Ministry (CSM) Publishing:

“Offering millennials an opportunity to speak to their generation, Radiate is a writing workshop created intentionally for young writers in English who are interested in being trained to write for publishing and are passionate about the ministry of the written word.

“Radiate aims to reflect God’s glory through the prism of life experiences of this younger generation. It aims to hone the potential of aspiring writers and to encourage them to boldly tell their stories of faith to inspire others and draw them closer to God.”

The early announcement was necessary because the workshop required a screening. Would-be participants had to write a 500-word essay on why they want to write.

Twenty two were chosen to attend the training held on two successive Saturdays.

Some of them had already written for their school paper, but majority still had to write their first published work.

Before I clicked on my first slide, it was apparent that everyone was on the same wavelength. The enthusiasm was so palpable, I knew I was among kindred souls who were likewise birthed with the passion for writing. It was a moment of grace; I couldn’t wish for a more radiant group.

The day (9 to 4 PM) went by quickly, too quickly.

Millennials, according to research, could not listen, concentrate and do exercises on a topic for hours, but this group of 22 proved this empirical datum wrong. The photo collages below try to tell the story of that adrenaline-charged Saturday, but fail. No camera could capture the outward radiance that springs from intense feelings deep within.  
"Let's engage our readers with stories."
"Content, content, content. Fancy turn of phrases come later."
"What do we want readers to think after reading our piece?"
"We are not preachers. We are writers baring our soul."


Nine Days in November

Everything unusual and unexpected seemed to happen in those nine days last month, November 2017.
Earlier, classes were suspended almost every week due to typhoons. Then classes were suspended again for three days because of All Saint’s Day. Then classes were suspended again because of the ASEAN summit.

Some things had to give.

Since very few working days were left in the month, every one of my activities were crammed in those nine days: make-up classes, a series of seminars (scheduled since March), on top of regular classes and activities. All these needed slides, readings, presence, participation, and various preparations. I had to turn down an opportunity to have a book talk in the Middle East because there was just too much on my plate.

“Lord, please help me get through these nine days,” I begged daily for mighty grace.

The nine days didn’t go like a breeze (I spent more time worrying and painting scenarios of dismal consequences rather than concentrating on my activities), but—to borrow an old idiom—I was none the worse for wear.

After the ninth day, I soaked in the bath and treated myself to a nine-hour sleep. But not before I rebuked myself and asked forgiveness for forgetting about this verse: