The day after Christmas and the urgent gift we must offer our world

My books from my childhood and adolescence now boast the smell I love so much — the toasty, musty scent of old books. On Christmas day, standing in the bedroom I grew up in, I scanned my shelf looking for a good book to re-read as a Christmas treat. I pulled out Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which I hadn’t opened in over ten years.

Even as a young reader, I already knew this book was one I would have to revisit as an adult. When the movie came out not too long ago, I purposefully missed it, remembering the promise I had made when my copy of the book still smelled clean and bookstore-fresh.

So on this Christmas Day, to satisfy the hope of my younger self, I opened up the pages, already browning and spotted with a bit of age. This hope was that as I grew up and grew older, I would continue to open my heart to precious stories like these; that I would revisit their chapters and let their wisdom reveal something new with each reading.

The incredible thing is that the moment I finished the book this time, soon after waking this morning, I ached to read it over. It is a perfectly-timed read, as I continue to wrestle with the polarizing impressions of the daily news — safety and violence, injustice and the eager Christmas spirit.

In The Giver, Lois Lowry brings us to a version of our world that lives in Sameness. It is a safer, more organized world where people feel no pain, where everyone has their duty and place in society at any given time. Those that do not, due to weakness at birth or old age, or because of disobedience of the rules, were released from the community.

It was a secure society, where people shared their feelings, offered and accepted verbal apologies when wrong was committed, and never found themselves wanting.

While all of that made for a peaceful “life,” these people could not see colors, had never heard music, and more painfully to consider, had never known love. Could we still call this living? They had no knowledge of sunshine, of snow, of flowers or of birds. They had unknowingly traded the splendor of these simple, lovely things, for the absence of any discomfort, ache or inadequacy.

Only one member of their community held all memory and history — really he was the only one that knew of and lived with the beauty, pleasure, sorrow and pain that ever existed. That person was the Receiver of Memory. Jonas, our twelve-year old protagonist, was selected to be the new Receiver, by the former one, now known as the Giver.

And right in the pages of this book sits a beautiful memory of Christmas:

“Jonas felt the joy of it as soon as the memory began. Sometimes it took a while for him to get his bearings, to find his place. But this time he fit right in and felt the happiness that pervaded the memory.

He was in a room filled with people, and it was warm, with firelight glowing on a hearth. He could see through a window that outside it was night, and snowing. There were colored lights: red and green and yellow, twinkling from a tree which was, oddly, inside the room. On a table, lighted candles stood in a polished golden holder and cast a soft, flickering glow. He could smell things cooking, and he heard soft laughter. A golden-haired dog lay sleeping on the floor.

On the floor there were packages wrapped in brightly colored paper and tied with gleaming ribbons. As Jonas watched, a small child began to pick up the packages and pass them around the room…. While Jonas watched, the people began one by one to untie the ribbons on the packages, to unwrap the bright papers, open the boxes and reveal toys and clothing and books. There were cries of delight. They hugged one another….

Jonas opened his eyes and lay contentedly on the bed, still luxuriating in the warm and comforting memory. It had all been there, all the things he had learned to treasure.

“What did you perceive,” The Giver asked.

“Warmth,” Jonas replied, “and happiness. And — let me think. Family.”*

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On this stormy day after Christmas, I think of all those around the world who are not surrounded by the ideal Christmas or holiday. There are many among us who sit in evacuation centers, crowd in refugee camps, cower in the fear or aftermath of violence, run breathless in search for peace, shrink in hunger, or face their grief alone. Even as many of us have joyfully celebrated in the company of loved ones this Christmas, safe by a glowing fire, bathed in sweet sunlight, or in the embrace of joy, there are too many in the world that live the exact opposite of this story.

Though we raise our banners of generosity and cheer this holiday season, there is no denying the hatred, suffering, and overwhelming grief that runs in the bloodstream of humanity. It seems our love is not enough to heal the wounds, to ease the torment, or to undo the wrongs that have been committed in our generation alone. I fear our own hypocrisy.

And yet, I find myself still clinging to hope, even with the deafening noise and discouragement of reality. I cling to the true Gift of this season — the Love that heals, the Love that saves. The Hope in Whom Christmas began.

Because we are human, we will continue to carry the weight of anguish and heartache, but with it, the lightness of love and compassion. In a time when justice can feel like a sad, mocking idea to the suffering multitudes around the world, I insist that there is still a fighting army of us who can love, forgive and heal. Help me prove that this is true. These are the days when we must courageously show up in defense, in solidarity, out of love for others.

“… Jonas, the community will be left with no one to help them. They’ll be thrown into chaos. They’ll destroy themselves. I can’t go.

“Giver,” Jonas suggested, “you and I don’t need to care about the rest of them.”

The Giver looked at him with a questioning smile. Jonas hung his head. Of course they needed to care. It was the meaning of everything.”*

As I closed the pages of The Giver, I held on to these words. It is simple, but far from easy place to begin.

We start by caring. Truly caring for one another. We may not live in the Sameness of Jonas’ community, but the need for us to care is even greater today. It is so important that we reflect on how we are tangibly called to do this today and that we act on it with purpose and urgency.

May we never let our colors mute to gray, our music unravel into silence, our dancing slow down to stillness, our love disfigure into hatred, or our sense of justice crumble into indifference.

Merry Christmas!

[*Quotes in italics are from the novel, The Giver, by Lois Lowry, published in 1993, by Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers in New York.]

Don’t steal your own Christmas!

 

No matter how early you prepare for Christmas, it has its unfailing manner of sneaking up on you. Though the season has clearly made its presence known (especially when you live in the Philippines!), suddenly you wake up and there’s just four sleeps left. You wonder where the time has gone? Stolen by too many moments that weren’t really about Christmas at all!

It’s the yearly cycle of getting caught up in the busyness. The anticipation, annual traditions and the brightened eyes of those around you (Brightened mostly from receiving presents… Mostly from the mere thought…  Mostly from the mere promise of the thought of receiving presents!)

And we, or I at least, often arrive at a moment, sometimes too late (a day after Christmas or later still), thinking: how quickly it all comes and goes! Was I present at Christmas? Or had I let it blow through me like the cyclical tropical storm?

I liken this diversion to what we often see these days: Take a special event (a wedding, birthday or show,) and people are caught up in taking photos of the moment, keepsakes for later, videos that may never be re-watched. The effort and attention go to the storing (for later sharing), and too little to the actual experience. Instead of keeping our senses open, we hold a camera up and make sure nothing gets in the way of our frame. How many Christmases have gone by with too much of it through a middleman frame? How many significant moments?

What better “thing” to get in the way of your frame, than purely, humanly, genuinely treasuring an experience? No matter how short! Eyes, ears, nose, tongue and touch – open!

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My little origami tree!

I try this sometimes, storing mental pictures of things, mostly people.

I’ve clicked the shutter of my mind’s eye to save the way friends look back at me. After a long distance apart, while sharing good news, celebrating a milestone, across a table over a meal, or in the moments that we say goodbye before parting lives. The expression in their eyes, their body language – something honest that I can’t quite capture with a lens in between us. (Others can.) I take a few moments, breathe it all in, try to remember all I can, hoping my memory is awake.

If the visuals fail, I think about how civilizations survived without photographs or the internet, and all those people have lived and loved with seemingly unmatchable intensity through battles, victories and ruin. And without photographs, their passion, their stories have transcended generations! So sometimes I defer to words, describe the scene, my feelings, to myself. Some of my favorite stories have come from authored books, not reality TV or media feeds, but they are as vivid to me in memory as my own experiences.

On Sunday morning I had my own mini-battle of pure sensory experience vs digital stowage. At my church, there’s a tradition of the choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus on special occasions. The fourth Sunday of advent, right around the corner from Christmas eve, was one of those days. The choir invites members of the congregation to come up and join the choir onstage, with copies of the sheet music in hand. I’ve never gone up to sing, but I enjoy the tradition very much! It’s beautiful! A taste of Heaven! Since I sat quite close to the front today, I contemplated pulling out my phone and taking a video, even though I had heard the music multiple times before.

I had a discussion with myself – would I ever even watch the video again? The sound quality is never as good on a video! Why would I want to ruin the moment with a device in my hand? What if I wanted to sing along for a bit, I wouldn’t want my voice recorded over the choir’s? Haven’t they done this multiple times this year? There’ll be another time if you need it!

In the end, I decided I wanted to relish the moment in full analog style. (Not always the case these days…)

Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, touch and heart – open!

I almost cried just listening.

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The Christmas corner of my little home!

 

Today, it’s just a few days before Christmas and I am once again in the flurry of the season. I’ve spent a good part of the advent season worrying about a myriad of things, as always. And the worries always solve themselves in the end (without any help from the wasted hours of worrying!)

More than in previous years, I have cherished my quite moments in advent anticipation. And yet, I write in this moment still feeling like I have missed out on Christmas, that I have skimmed over the season in eagerness, and let another Christmas go! But I guess at this point in the day, it’s just a bit of fear.

Thankfully, I still have a few more days: To sit in the glow of the tree and the Cross. To listen to the angels singing. To let Christmas unfold first in my heart through the Light of the manger.

And then later, much later, and only as measly afterthoughts in the afterglow, to unfold in the unwrapping of presents and to swell in the wrapping of family and loved ones.

 

First look is to the Light.

Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, touch and heart – open!

 

 

Christmas Eve

I think I’ve felt it more this year than any other year – the cheery distractions of society’s Christmas traditions. The world points us to every other thing during the season – even good and beautiful things – to take our minds off the moment in history that started it all. God’s bold move to change the fate of the broken spirit.
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It’s been hard to find a moment to think and reflect this holiday season. There is visitor after visitor, friend after friend, task after task, deadline after deadline, Christmas tradition after Christmas tradition that must be attended to.

This happens every year. And although I had made all the preparations to make my Christmas season as warm and bright as possible – an (almost) only Christmas music diet this whole month, decorating my very own little Christmas tree for my first apartment, hosting a holiday party, among other things – all these welcomed the Christmas spirit, but distracted me from sitting by the manger, eyes on the little Baby who would mend all the broken hearts of this world with Life. That’s where my Christmas warmth and light comes from.

Earlier this advent season, I opened up a large book sitting among my coffee table books – a hard bound collection of poetry, bought a long time ago at a second had bookstore. In its pages I found a Christmas poem that struck me, one I have read and re-read over the past few days to reflect on the light of the advent season. May it also lead you back to your Bethlehem.

Merry Christmas!!!

 

Nativity

Merry Christmas!

Christmas snuck up on me again!

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Our Aritao tree on Christmas eve!

Today is one of my favorite days of the year. Christmas day may be one of the few that I leave unplanned,  no to-do list, no agenda, and no expectations. After a late night of hanging out with the family, eating ham, sipping wine and opening presents, a sweetly lit Christmas eve is followed by a day at home, taking a real day off.

Very late this morning, I woke up my favorite way: slowly. Through my bedroom window I was greeted by a lovely view – a crisp clear blue behind this brilliant white. I thought I may have woken up to snow covered mountains, and not the low, fluffy white clouds that eased me out of bed. With sleep still in my eyes I snapped a photo that doesn’t do it justice:

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Around Christmastime, the world has been inclined to suffer some of its heaviest hits, this year and in years past – be it from natural disaster like a supertyphoon, from discord between nations or families, or violence both intentional or accidental. These experiences cut even more pain when held in the light of celebration and the desire for peace.

Despite the darkness and ruin that overcomes so many, hope endures. Victims of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda spend this season very differently from the last, a long way down from their expectations of Christmas cheer. Despite promises of local organizations, not all families have had their electricity  reconnected since the storm, spending the holidays steeped in darkness. Many still clutch the gaping hole of loss -their first Christmas without a father, or without a home of their own. A night is haunted by nightmares of the savage flooding, and the daytime is not large enough to get lost in. Too many still survive in conditions that defy even the most basic of human needs. During this season of plenty, we cannot forget those that have little.

These people are not alone in their grief. All over the world are people sinking in their sorrow. All over the world, we must hail their resilience. There is no other way.

On Christmas Sunday, I had the privilege of leading the Prayers of the People. Portions of it, I share with you today. And if you would so wish, pray this prayer with me today: 

Dear Father, 

We come to You today with thanksgiving in our hearts, with worship for You on our lips, and hope rising among us.

You are our light through all season, through all generations. We are in awe of You.

We fall short of Your glory and acknowledge our wrongdoings, our hardened hearts and our eyes that have turned away from You. We are sorry.

Thank You for the coming of Jesus, for the joy of the advent season, waiting patiently and expectantly for You. 

We lift up to You the families represented in our church. Whether the holidays are spent in loud cheer or silently in our hearts, whether our table sits three generations or just You Jesus, and us – bring joy to all our homes, big and small, in plenty and in little, here and abroad. We invite You in. We celebrate You. 

We remember those all over the world, and right in our city, struck by tragedy, loss, sickness, natural disaster, injustice, depression, hatred, hunger or pain.

May the light of Your presence this Christmas push out every darkness, soothe every aching heart, every tearful child, or every family that has lost their hope. 

Bring your provision and joy to their place of need. Satisfy their hungry hearts. Satisfy our hungry hearts. Lastly, may Your Light, the Light that Jesus brings, shine the brightest of all the Christmas.

Amen. 

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Nothing lights up this season and every season, like the King born in a manger. Family and friends, thank you for being messengers of this light too – for your generosity of company, word, gift or smile – blessings on you! Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, Merry Christmas!

The Charm of Christmas

It’s easy for the charm of Christmas to wear thin as the years go by. Things just get… old. Routine. Like a chore even.

Back in September, I wrote about how early Christmas comes in the Philippines, and how I was looking forward to warming up to the season, rather than it sneaking up on me. The past six Christmases, I would arrive in Manila only days before Christmas, still exhausted from a hectic semester or a brutal finals season. Coming home, it felt that Christmas suddenly threw itself upon me, just like the heat that hits like a wall when you first walk out of the airport in this city. I was caught unaware, unlike the Christmases of growing up when expectation built steadily and heartily. Back then, once Christmas Eve finally came, you were at the peak of your holiday joy, not weakly catching up. It was a bit like jetlag – but a lag of Christmas spirit!

But with work being busy and life in full swing, Christmas still sort of snuck up on me. We didn’t put up a tree until just a couple of days before Christmas (buying it only a few days before that!) And our family’s Christmas stockings weren’t hung up until Christmas eve, just shortly after the glitter glue, boasting all of our names (even those of the little niece -one of whom is patiently waiting her grand entrance into the world), had dried.

christmasfamily(Christmas Eve with the Aritaos! Almost complete! Missing oldest sister Jan and sending lots of love to her in Singapore!)

But what didn’t sneak up, was the warmth of the season, the brightness of smiles and the joy of giving. There have been too many reasons why Christmas is beautiful this year ! However, underneath all that, was and always is the real joy of Christmas – not the bright lights, not the bond of family, not the generosity of strangers, but the coming of a little King into a manger, oh so many years ago.

As I sit at the foot and the light of our new Christmas tree (our first new tree since I was seven years old! – A good story waiting to be told), I reflect on the true Christmas story, and how this story never gets old. For that and only that, will the charm of Christmas never wear thin.

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And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”