GhostingSeptember 9, 2021
ContentSeptember 3, 2021
Why Doing GoodAugust 26, 2021
ExpectationsAugust 12, 2021
Separate WaysJuly 22, 2021
This Too Shall PassJuly 16, 2021
FreedomJuly 1, 2021
Our Constitution speaks about freedom to practice or not practice our religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of press. For the most part, we have been enjoying freedom in those areas. And then we are talking about freedom from this terrible COVID 19 pandemic. We’re still working on it, but it seems like we’re on the right track for that freedom. I also find my kids starting to speak about freedom of expressing themselves from tattoos to fashion. And can we say that we are truly free from the most part living in this Land of the Free? Perhaps. I am not sure.
How can we say that we are truly free when the biggest captor of our life is our own thoughts? Have you ever had a time in your life where your mind couldn’t stop playing the sad and worrisome songs? The terrible thing about it is that it keeps on looping endlessly. These songs are played by the band of insecurities, uncertainties, fear, worries, and jealousy. O yes, they are mean, ruthless, and cold-blooded. They don’t care that you need to turn these noises off so you can go to sleep uninterrupted. Precisely, they came to you in the middle of the night, set up their big band and played their horrid melodies in your head. Over time, you will lose sleep and have no energy. It crushes your mood. You became tired, agitated, and bitter. Yup, unknowingly, your negative thoughts claimed their victory over your life. When you finally realize that you have been enslaved and tortured by them, the damage has been done and could take years to rebuild your life back on.
Kahlil Gibran was right when he wrote: You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief, but rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound. — “On Freedom”. I wish I could do that: rise above my own negative thoughts naked and unbound, free from all kinds of attachment and fear. How can we live free like that? A friend said to me, you worry because you care. That’s true. A parent prays for their children day and night, a lover gets jealous, a shop owner works hard, a student sweats over their school grades,….because they care. Isn’t the opposite of love indifference? But then, isn’t it terrible if caring can cause us to be a captive of our own thoughts? Or perhaps, our way of caring is wrong. That’s why it causes us to suffer.
Perhaps we can learn from the way Jesus cares. He cares without asking for anything in return. Jesus cares without any reservation or agenda and because of that, He is free. When a rich young ruler refused to follow Him, he stayed quiet and didn’t shake him for missing a great opportunity to be His disciple. When Peter denied Him and Judas betrayed Him, He didn’t get upset. When His Father in Heaven refused to take the cup of suffering away from Jesus, He didn’t throw a fist to His Father but followed obediently. Jesus also had no worry when He said that “The Son of Man doesn’t have any place to lay His head” and He suggests us to learn from the birds in the sky and lily in the valley that have no fear about life. O, how freeing if we all can live like Jesus!
In this life, especially when the world is still fighting this terrible pandemic, it is almost impossible not to be concerned or worried about something. But it can certainly help when we share our load with our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus invites us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29) To Jesus we can bring the names of our beloved. To Jesus we can show him our concerns and worries and all the stuff that keeps us awake at night. Yes, He can give us freedom from our negative thoughts so that we can rest peacefully in His embrace.
Happy Freedom Day,
The Real Gift is the Thought InsideJune 10, 2021
Our sense of gratitude is relative to the size of the "gift" a person gives to us. Let me explain.
A rich friend gave you a twenty dollar gift card for your birthday present. Of course you would say, "Thank you" to the giver. But deep down, perhaps you were grumbling, "Really? That's it? You are my friend and you are capable of giving more than just a twenty-dollar-gift card." Compared to someone you barely know who gave you a thousand dollar gift out of the blue. O boy, I believe you would appreciate it very much. You would write the nicest thank you letter on a fifteen dollar Hallmark’s card with gold glitter and promise to yourself that you would repay the giver with a nice gift on their next special occasion.
Or consider a different example. Oftentimes our social identity as a consumer dictates how we should be grateful or not. We have been trained to think of ourselves and then to behave as consumers. If we are a consumer, it follows that our primary expectation of the people we meet is that we get something from them for which we are prepared to pay a price. Like giving the tip to the waiter in a restaurant or to our pizza guy: Good service 25% tip, poor service: standard tipping: 10%. Or, going back to the first example, we put people we know in scales and ranks: the better the person, the better our treatments toward them.
There's nothing wrong with that. Aren't we all reaping what we are sowing? Even Jesus realized our tendencies to grade our gratefulness in terms of the gifts we received and even reminded His disciples about that. In the event of a sinful woman who bathed Jesus' feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair (in Luke 7:36-50), answering the cynicism of the people around Jesus, He answered: “Do you see this woman? When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in. You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has poured perfumed oil on my feet. This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.”
But I would like you to consider this story I got from a friend the other day.
There was a desert wanderer who discovered a spring of cool, crystal-clear water. It tasted so good, he filled a leather container with the precious liquid so he could bring it to the king. After a long journey, he presented his gift to the king, who drank it with great pleasure and lavishly thanked the wanderer, who went away with a happy heart. The king’s son tasted the water and spit it out. It had picked up the smell of the old leather canteen and had become foul. The boy asked his father why he pretended to like the awful tasting water. The king said, "Son, that man gave me a gift from his heart. It wasn’t the water I enjoyed; it was the sweet taste of his generosity. When someone gives you something with genuine love, the thing given is simply the container. The real gift is the thought inside."
Oftentimes, we overlook the "gift" that a person gave to us just because the gift is too simple and looks cheap, such as a wishing well card, a bag of cookies, or a simple text message from someone you know wishing you a happy birthday. We judge the gifts thinking that the givers are capable of giving more than what they already gave us. How about the next time we get the gifts we express our gratitude the same no matter the size of the gifts? Because in the end the real gift is the thought inside."
Consider another story about a poor widow: "Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44)
Love and prayers,
Pain, AgainMay 20, 2021
I don't know how many times I've talked, preached, or written an article on the topic of pain. Pain, suffering, agony, misery, trouble, affliction, adversity, misfortune, hardship...pain comes in many names and it encompasses every aspect of life, big or small. From a paper cut pain, pain of losing someone we love, pain of chronic illness, to an incurable pain of a broken heart. We are fascinated by pain. We try to understand the meaning and the purpose behind pain. Philosophers in every generation came up with their wisdom about pain. Epicurus teaches us to pursue pleasure by avoiding bodily pain whatever the cost. While Marquis de Sade, on the other hand, teaches that we can experience pleasure only by way of pain. And Nietzche suggests that both pleasure and pain must be sought together: "Did you ever say yes to a pleasure? Oh my friends, then you also said yes to all pain. All things are linked, entwined, in love with one another." "What does not kill me, makes me stronger." The writers of the Bible, too, have mixed feelings about pain. Jeremiah asked the Lord: Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? (Jer.15:18) But Paul writes: "we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Rm 5:3-4) Despite all the arguments and reasons surrounding pain, pain is inevitable. It is the surest thing in human life. Pain is part of the deal of living on earth.
If you ask me, my opinion is clear: pain sucks! It's no fun. I don't like it. As a matter of fact, I hate it. And I will avoid it no matter what the wise may say about the benefit of it. Yup, my position on pain is as clear as day. Vania, my wife, who has been dealing with this excruciating back pain asked me yesterday, "Why is it that I must experience this?" Fighting back the tears, I shook my head and held her leg. I was trying to say something to cheer her up or at least to give her reason about the meaning behind the pain she's experiencing, but not a word came out of my mouth. I could say the classic, "Stay strong!" or "God has a plan for you" or quoting Jesus "this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in you."
But what do I know about this kind of pain? And who am I giving all kinds of wise sayings about pain while I, myself, have never experienced any terrible pain in my life?
I could say: be strong! But what if Vania doesn't want to tough it up. I could perhaps endure a day of pain but a month? Even the toughest person has their limit. I could say God has a plan. But how do I know the mind of God? And my human thinking cannot reason the connection between plan and pain. Pain should not be planned. If there is a plan in pain, it must be a bad plan and I despise that kind of plan. Or understanding what Jesus said the glory of God might be revealed in pain. I would argue, can God come up with a more positive way of revealing His glory? Is pain the only way?
I am reminded of an essay by Richard Rohr that has impacted me to better accept the reality of pain: "All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust and the undeserved—all of which eventually come into every lifetime. If only we could see these “wounds” as the way through, as Jesus did, then they would become sacred wounds rather than scars to deny, disguise, or project onto others. I am sorry to admit that I first see my wounds as an obstacle more than a gift. Healing is a long journey.
If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become cynical, negative, or bitter. This is the storyline of many of the greatest novels, myths, and stories of every culture. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it—usually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and, invariably, the most vulnerable, our children."
We may not be able to see the meaning or the reasons beyond our pain but we certainly have the options to do something about it. Rohr's proposal is to transform our pain into something more positive. Talking about his suffering and death, Jesus said “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." (John 12:23-24). Jesus transforms his pain into a way to bring blessings to others. Jesus sees his suffering and death as a way to bring '"fruit" of life, healing, and blessings to others. If we cannot see any good reason or meaning in the pain we are experiencing, perhaps it's not a bad idea to make something good out of the pain we carry, whatever the cost and whatever that may mean to you.
Love and prayers,
The Ascension DayMay 13, 2021
Yesterday we greeted our Muslim brothers and sisters: Eid Mubarak as they celebrated the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan. For Christians, today is the Ascension Day of our Lord Jesus Christ, the 40th day after Easter (Acts 1:1-11). For us, this day is very important. Jesus was no longer an earthly man, a humble servant who gave himself up to die for the salvation of the world. On ascension day, God the Father exalted Jesus as King to rule at His right hand. And we all now await His return to take us back to His kingdom to enjoy his presence for eternity. Ascension day is also important for the church of Jesus Christ because it marks the beginning of the lives and ministries of Jesus’ followers as they carried the torch of the Kingdom of God that was passed on by Jesus.
After Jesus was carried up into heaven, the last line of Luke’s Gospel reads: “They (the disciples) returned to Jerusalem with great joy and they were continually in the temple praising God.” Their teacher was no longer with them, but somehow they felt the joy. I don’t think we can equate it with teenagers who are left alone at the house by their parents. Yay!!! Party time! Time for booze and get wasted!” I don’t think so.
For them, Jesus is gone but not gone. They remember the Jesus of history, yes, but they live now immersed in the Christ of faith. And that’s why they were full of joy. Their minds and souls are raised to new awareness, to new insight, to new consciousness of the power of God among them. We all know how ignorant these disciples could be when Jesus was around. Thomas doubted, Peter had shallow faith, and they all ran away when Jesus was crucified, but somehow after Jesus went up to heaven, these disciples got it all. This time the whole Kingdom of God's business was on their hands. No time to mess around. They have learned the teachings and are about to live them out themselves.
But yes, at first they were stunned, they were troubled, they cried, they wept as they witnessed Jesus was taken up to heaven. Their eyes followed Jesus’ as he was slowly ascending, up, up, up, and... away... It was a majestic experience. Their eyes were fixed to the sky, to the heaven...wow….that’s beautiful!! Everybody in the crowd, looking up. But then, the angels rebuked them: “Men of Galilee! What are you doing looking up to heaven?” It’s like a mother who shakes her little boy who is having a dream. Wake up! You’re dreaming!
Jesus had just finished delivering his command to his disciples to go all the way to the end of the earth, and here we found his disciples staring to the sky. Perhaps, looking at heaven is more exciting than looking down to the world full of problems. And here, in the event of the ascension story lies the critic to us as humans. What are you looking at? It sounds silly. But that was the question posed in this story. What are you looking at? Jesus gave his command to his disciples to FACE THE WORLD! I am going back to my Father, now face the world! Look at the world that I love! Look at the people that I created. Go make disciples! And for the last time they didn’t get it until Jesus had to send his angels to slap the back of their heads. POW! What are you looking at? Don’t you remember that you have to go? Go now!
We may be puzzled by this. Isn’t looking at heaven the most profound thing? What's wrong with that? And here we have the great lesson about a link between the two inseparable dimensions of life - the physical and the spiritual- the heaven and the earth.
When Luke tells his audience that Jesus ascended to heaven, couldn’t it be possible that Luke also meant that the spirit of Jesus now dwells in the hearts of his people? Luke also tells us that on one occasion Jesus said: Not here or there but The kingdom of heaven is within you! We can’t see physical Jesus, but the spiritual Jesus is clearly within us, within his people on Earth. Jesus taught us to pray so that the kingdom of God may come on earth as it is in heaven. For Jesus it is clear that heaven and the earth, the spiritual and the physical are inseparable things. When we talk about heaven, we talk about the earth and vice versa.
Joan Chittister writes: Spiritual life is a life of awareness and divinization of the daily. The spiritual knows as a result that there is no place where God is not because the spiritual has learned to see Go everywhere. God is in suffering and God is in glory. God is in the cosmic, and God is in the crucifixions of daily life.
What happened to the disciples at the time of ascension was that they were looking at heaven as if there was no more earth. Go, Jesus commanded them...the kingdom of heaven is within you, it is on earth! Go and reveal it to every living person on earth. The voice of the angel to them calling them that they can still see Jesus in the life of His people in this world. To see the broken, the poor, to see the faces of Jesus is everywhere. “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it for me!” Matthew 25. Then the voice of the angel sends them back to Jerusalem.
Since ascension, We now live under the great command of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Go, He said! Go! Don’t stay, don’t linger, don’t get too comfortable, don’t get lazy! Go! You’ve faced the book, now face this world. Christianity could spread throughout the earth because of God’s people who embodied the “go”. From a humble carpenter’s son who inspired twelve people to walk and carry the cross with him to lost souls in Gobi desert and Amazon jungle. In the beginning of his ministry, Jesus said: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and to bring sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And off he goes, off his disciples go...and today, we are called to go, face the world, and proclaim Christ to all people. And off should we go!
Love and prayers,
The Cost of ThingsApril 22, 2021
Yesterday, out of the blue, Viola, my daughter gave an Amazon box to her brother, Varen. Curiously, Varen opened the box and found a brand new gamer headset. He got so excited about it. All these times, Varen has been using my old cheapy cellphone headset that only works on the left side and Viola's old laptop headset that only works on the right one. Combining the two headsets cleverly, Varen gets a balanced audio for his two ears. But, of course, it has become a hassle since he has to deal with more cables and four ear pieces. Perhaps Viola had noticed that and decided to give a gift to her beloved brother.
The new headset looks amazing to me. When Varen opened the box, I was in awe as well. It has a futuristic look and with a little mic wand on the headset makes Varen look like a pilot in a sci-fi movie. Handsome. When Varen went away to try the headset, I asked Viola how much money she spent for that. In my thinking, that headset must be well around $100 and I was curious where she got the money to buy it. She whispered, "fifteen." I was disbelieved, "fifty?" I asked her back. "No, fifteen!" she answered back. What? That's it? I didn't believe it. I took the packaging box and examined it. I was astounded. The price of the new headset became a discussion topic between Vania and I.
There are all kinds of costs involved in the making of that headset: the design, the plastic mold, the paint, the head foam cushion for the head and the ear parts to make the wearer more comfortable, the technology inside it: the electronic chips, the cable, the transmitter, even the packaging box that looks amazing must also have costed a lot of money to make. Not counting the cost to import the headset from China to the US. How come it only costs $15? Hundreds of skilled laborers were put to work in order to produce one headset and Viola only had to pay $15? Unbelievable. No wonder kids nowadays take things for granted, I said to Vania.
As I reflected more, I realized that it is not just kids that take things for granted. We are all at fault in this matter. When I look around my house and everything that I have bought: the dining table, TV, IKEA book shelves, guitar, drawing pens, paper, etc...each one of those items came with a price tag. And behind those price tags lies the life stories of the people who made them. A story of a single mother who has to get up every morning to assemble my bookshelves in order to feed her children. A story of an overworked engineer who had to design the chips for my TV. A story of a lumberjack in Brazil who lost one of his arms from an accident cutting wood for my guitar...We traded these life stories with the amount of money that's not even enough to pay our hourly minimum wage to do what they do. Sometimes with the money we earn and spend, we don't even think about these labor forces until their stories become our stories.
Knowing that there is somebody like us working tirelessly to provide us the inexpensive comfort we know we enjoy would give us a better appreciation about life. And more importantly, a sense of compassion to those who work. Because we owe our priceless comfort to them.
"May the favor of the Lord our God rest on (those who work and labor) us; establish the work of (those who work and labor) our hands for us— yes, establish the work of (those who work and labor) our hands."
– Psalm 90:17
Love and prayers,
In Pursuit of The MundaneMarch 25, 2021
Jerry Seinfeld tells a joke:
“When you’re moving your whole world becomes boxes. That’s all you think about is boxes. Boxes, where are there boxes? You just wander down the street going in and out of stores. Are there boxes here? Have you seen any boxes? I mean it’s all you think about. You can’t even talk to people because you can’t concentrate. Shut up I’m looking for boxes. After a while you become really into it you can smell them. You walk into a store. There’s boxes here. Don’t tell me you don’t have boxes. Darn it, I can SMELL them. I’m like I’m obsessed. I love the smell of cardboard in the morning. You could be at a funeral. Everyone’s mourning, crying around, and you're looking at the casket. That’s a nice box. Does anyone know where that guy got that box? When he’s done with it do you think I could get that? it’s got some nice handles on it. And that’s what death is really. It’s the last big move of your life. The hearse is like the van. The pall bearers are your close friends, the only ones you could ask to help you with a big move like that. and the casket is that great perfect box you’ve been waiting for your whole life. The only problem is, once you find it you’re in it.”
Ah, life and its concerns...Seinfeld and his genius joke really poked my inner thought the first time I heard it. I was laughing not at the joke but to what the joke is pointing at...myself. If we can be honest with ourselves, we will find that we have been spending too much time looking and searching for the mundane in life. We have become anxious, stressed, and agitated because the mundane we are looking for is hard to find because it's rare, costly, and everyone else wants it as well. Unknowingly, we have signed up for a race in pursuit of the mundane. We wake up every morning thinking about the best strategy of winning it. We think about how to be at a strategic place so that we can have the biggest opportunity to seize the mundane we are craving for before anyone else. If our competitors get there first, we're ready! Because we have created 1001 ways to intercept, tackle, and to snatch the mundane from the hand of our opponents. Day in and day out, our minds are fixated on the mundane.
Jesus also tells a joke about the pursuit of the mundane in Luke 12:16-21:
" Jesus told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
What is wrong with building larger barns to store away some of today’s harvest for tomorrow? Isn't it wise to save up? Yes! Nothing's wrong, except for two things. First, notice how the farmer is talking to himself: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul….” Notice the amount of "I" and "my"? The farmer doesn't even think about using the harvest to help others, there's no gratitude for his good fortune, let alone any recognition of God who gives this abundance to the farmer. The farmer has fallen prey to worshiping the most popular of gods: the Unholy Trinity of “me, myself, and I.” This leads to the second mistake. He is not foolish because he makes provision for the future; he is foolish because he believes that by his wealth he can secure his future. The farmer is called “fool” because of neither his wealth nor ambition but rather because he grants finite things infinite value.
The mundane can be anything we are looking for on earth: riches, fame, beauty, fitness, hobby, comfort, security, you name it. Those things are important, but what good are they if one day once we find it we're buried in them?
I pray that this Lent season we can give us an opportunity to evaluate the focus of our lives and to reorder our life not around the mundane and finite but around God who is spiritual and infinite.
"But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."
– Matthew 6:33
Love and prayers,
Teach Me What I Cannot SeeMarch 11, 2021
There is nothing more confusing than when someone that you love suddenly turns their back against you. They stop calling you and when you're trying to call, your call goes directly to their voicemail box. No news and everything grows quiet around you and your friend. It's as if they were swallowed alive inside the belly of the earth. You try to visit their house to find out what's going on. You ring the bell and you hear the sound of the walking steps from inside the house, but then you hear no answer. You know your friend is by the door taking a peek from the peephole but they refuse to open the door for you. Every effort to find out what's going on failed. You start wondering, what have I done? Isn't it hurtful when we don't even know what we have done to deserve this kind of treatment?
Knowing is a basic human need. We are God's only creature that has the desire to know and to find reason for everything that exists in this world. This desire of knowledge has caused us to fall miserably when Adam and Eve, our ancestors, couldn't bottle their curiosity for getting a taste of the forbidden tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden. But this desire has also been our saving grace in preserving many lives. Think about the world's scientists who thirst to know how the Corona Virus lives and works in the human body so that they can fight against it. For sure, the most frustrating event in life is when we fail to know the answer to our questions. When mystery remains mystery.
Job, in the Bible, has asked the very questions when God allows suffering that's felt more like punishment to befall him. "If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity? Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be.” (Job 7:20-21) Perhaps Job was thinking, "All my life I've been doing good to you. I have put you as the most important substance in my life and you have reckoned me righteous in your eyes. Now tell me why you give me this whirlwind?" So Job begged to God, "Teach me what I cannot see; if I have done wrong, I will not do so again.’" (Job 34:32)
I love that statement. "Teach me what I cannot see". In this life, we are prone to make mistakes no matter how hard we try not to. Breaking people's hearts, offending our loved ones, and turning our back against God are our expertise. We don't have to go to school to do those things. In sin my mother conceived me, said the Psalmist. When we don't even know what we are doing that brings disaster to other people's lives, the damage could be more severe. Especially when we think that we are superior to others and we think that we never make mistakes. Before we know it a harmonious life that we have been having disappears before us. It takes serious humility to admit that we are covered with all kinds of blindspots in our relationship with others and God. It takes deep commitment to make any relationship to work. But it is not impossible.
So, let us pray the prayer of Job today, "God, teach me what I cannot see...so that I can love You and others more deeply." AMEN
Love and prayers,
Life Will Find Its WayFebruary 26, 2021
I have neglected to clean the rain gutter around my house since last year. The combination of laziness and the thought that "I will do it tomorrow" that turns into "ah, it won't hurt to leave the gutter until the next rainy season." So yes, yesterday when I was working on my front yard, as I was taking a deep breath after doing some heavy lifting, my eyes caught an unusual sight around the corner of my house's roof. There were little green leaves hidden in that corner. How odd? I thought. I took a step closer to see what it really was. To my disbelief, I found that the gutter in the corner had turned into a vegetation bed. It was filled with cute little leafy plants all around. How could I miss that all along? I checked inside, and of course, these little leafy plants grew over the falling leaves debris from the big tree next to my house which got settled inside of the gutter for months and months. This debris became fertile soil for this little vegetation to live.
The question is, where did the seed of these plants come from? My mind wandered. Did a little bird that hung out on the top of the gutter dropped a little seed from its beak? Has the wind pollinated my soil filled gutter with the seed it brought? Or maybe the leaves debris that settled had in it those living seeds inside and when it was given enough time and a good environment, it grew into a green plant. Who knows!
Borrowing the quote from the Jurassic Park movie, the important lesson I learned was "life will always find its way.” In the most secluded, hidden, and unexpected place, you will find life making its way to live, grow, and shine. If this neglected gutter is our life, perhaps we should look for beauty and life in the area of our life that has been ignored for years. Perhaps a long forgotten childhood hobby could bring us back to the happiness we have longed to regain. A broken relationship we had with our former best friend could bring us unexpected joy when we choose to revisit it. Or our years of disappointment with God who doesn't seem to answer our prayer would turn into a thriving spiritual life if we choose to give God a second chance to dwell in our heart.
This neglected gutter can also be a reminder for us, no matter how difficult and challenging life can be, life will always find its way. No matter how impossible it might seem at the moment, there will always be hope for growth and thriving life. Yes, the life giving Spirit of God can manifest anywhere: in the cracked concrete of our heart, in the parched dry desert place of our soul, or in the frozen arctic of our mind. You will find God in action making life in the place where life cannot be found. Surely, sometimes we will find life in the most unexpected place. Believe me. Who would have known that little seeds can find their place to live inside a rain gutter of a lazy pastor's house? By now, you may wonder, Vincent, are you going to clean your gutter at all after all you've said about it? Well...I'll report back to you on my next blog :) HA!
"Can I go anywhere apart from Your Spirit? Is there anywhere I can go to escape Your watchful presence? If I go up into heaven, You are there. If I make my bed in the realm of the dead, You are there. If I ride on the wings of morning, if I make my home in the most isolated part of the ocean, Even then You will be there to guide me; Your right hand will embrace me, for You are always there."
– Psalm 139:7-10 (VOICE Bible)
Love and prayers,
Q&AFebruary 11, 2021
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”
― Albert Einstein, The World As I See It
"Kids nowadays get access to all kinds of answers for any question they have. They can't stand any lingering inquiry without any resolution. They can't stand mystery, that's it." My friend was making a case during our conversation of how the new generation always wants to get the answer about each one of their problems quickly. The invention of search engines, I believe, has contributed to this attitude. Search engines like Google have provided them with a quick way to solve every problem under heaven. The answer of every mystery is just a couple clicks away with your fingers. Ask Google about the weather today, how to make a delicious chocolate chip cookie, or how to get out of a toxic relationship...the answers are immediate and vary to fit your heart's desire.
The older generation, perhaps, have more patience to wait for the right answer. I still remember living in the dark ages (I shouldn't brag too much in this case since many of my elders have lived in even darker ages) in Indonesia where TV only had one channel. There were no computers, no internet, no cellphone, our library books were not that comprehensive back then either. When you had a question like "where do babies come from", the only way you had was to ask your parents or your teachers, and believe me, you would get all kinds of weird answers such as: babies are from the supermarket (think Petco where you get your pets) or you get married and voila, God gives you baby (which is true, but not the whole truth :) If you find me talking nonsense, you can blame years and years of misinformation I got when I was little HA!
Yes, the older generation may be better in coping with mystery. But it doesn't mean that we like mystery. We just had no choice and the only way to live within the mystery was to adapt and adjust and let the mystery be mystery. Even in this era of digital information, we still cannot answer every question.
When can I get back to worship in church?
How will the future look post-pandemic?
Will I live a happy life for the rest of my life?
These are some questions that we just can't simply google to find the answer. We must be willing to live with it. Yes, just like reading a mystery book, sometimes we become impatient to find out the end of it where the cloud of questions is finally lifted. But that's life. A life without a mystery is not real life. Sometimes we cry like the psalmist in the Bible who lived in the ancient time cried for revelation: "God, do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly, for I am in trouble." (Psalm 69:17) We, too, cry to God for answers when life gets crazy and challenging. And oftentimes, questions remain and mystery prevails.
How do we live with questions and mystery of life? Consider this story of Anthony de Mello:
"Disciples ask the Holy One to teach them the secret of life. Because it was the Day of Silence, the master took a piece of paper and wrote just one word in reply, "Awareness." The disciples read the word and looked at one another in consternation. "Master," they continued, "Could you explain this a little more?" The Holy One took another piece of paper and this time wrote two words, "Awareness. Awareness." The disciples were clearly perturbed. "Holy One, "they persisted. "Can't you please explain more about what you mean by 'awareness?" The Holy One looked up from the prayer rug exasperated and this time wrote clearly and distinctly. "When I say 'awareness,' I mean Awareness! Awareness! Awareness!""
To me, the awareness that there are things in life that will remain a mystery begs us not to pursue answers but to live within it is a key to our happiness. And the awareness that God is present in our life questions is the ultimate key to happiness. Humans are the only creatures that ask questions. The ability to ask questions, to dive deep to the depth of life's mystery is God's given ability. That means God allows us to live with mystery and questions of life and as a matter of fact, God wants us to live inside them. With that, we can be confident that we will have power to endure no matter how mysterious our life can be.
Love and prayers,
Plan? What Plan?January 22, 2021
If this month were a normal January, I would be putting together a list of places to visit, people to meet, and projects to do. This January, perhaps, is like no other January for a lot of us in terms of personal planning. The first day in January came and I found myself scratching my head thinking about what I should do with this year as I lost my two mentors and my second brother, Christian, was hospitalized for a severe case of Covid. This is the end of the third week of January, and I still don't exactly know what to plan. Even with the new administration and vaccine on its way, the road ahead is still foggy. That makes the whole planning thing a tricky task. I asked a couple of friends about their plan for this year. Their response is strikingly similar: Plan? What plan?
I still remember the plan I put together for the year 2020 with things to do, the names of several countries I planned to visit for my mission trip, and a plan to visit my family in Indonesia. It was all fun until March came with its shelter-in-place mandate and travel ban in every corner of the world. I faced a sad reality that all my plans had shattered. I remember a Yiddish quote: "humans plan, God laughs." I found it true last year, a bitter truth indeed. We humans can only plan within our own human capacity and limitations and see how far our planning can carry through. The rest, we can only hope that the Almighty will allow our planning to become reality.
The question is, if we cannot plan, should we not plan for anything? Despite everything that happened, I am still a firm believer of planning ahead. Because planning gives us a sense of direction, a measured step that I must take toward the future, and a goal to achieve. Even though our planning this year may require us to add ways, extra room for adjustment, adaptation, change, flexibility, and mercy…(yup, mercy to redeem ourselves when our plan once again must face a brutal reality of sinking before its launch), planning is important. I know that God may laugh at my plan, but with a plan in my hand, I will laugh with Him, and in turn I will ask God, "God, if you're going to laugh at my plan, why don't you help me plan my plan.”
I think a better plan we can propose this year as we continue to struggle during this uncertain time is: to have God's plan in our plan. With the song "Lord, I Offer My Life" by Don Moen, we sing:
"Things in the past
Things yet unseen
Wishes and dreams that are yet to come true
All of my hopes
And all of my plans
My heart and my hands are lifted to You
Lord, I offer my life to You
Everything I've been through
Use it for Your glory"
And we pray as Jesus taught us to pray, "Lord, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Your will, not mine."
Love and prayers,
His Love Endures ForeverDecember 31, 2020
I think every person in this world would feel the same about this year. Choose one bad adjective and most likely it would be applicable to describe this year: dark, gloomy, sad, bitter, boring, desolate, eerie, depressing, cruel, deadly… This year's situation has caused us to become erratic, abrasive, distasteful, distant, cold, numb, rude, stressed, sour, angry, rotten…Very negative.
If life is a book, this is the part where the hero of the story got beaten up, and everything that can go wrong, go wrong. Our hero got pushed to the edge between existence and nonexistence and they are barely hanging. We don't like this part. Even though, deep down, we know that the thing that makes a good story in a novel is the conflict that the character must go through otherwise, the book will not worth reading. But this time, we just want to move forward to the next chapter because this part of this life's story has been too dark for far too long. The gloom and doom have been lingering for pages and pages long almost without any hint of the conflict resolution for the hero of the story. If you're like me, for sure you can hardly wait to flip the page of this part of the story and move on to the part where the hero's fate is about to be turned around toward goodness.
As we are waiting for the turning of the year, if you have a chance, read the entire Psalm 136. Read it carefully and you will find that every action from creation through liberation to ongoing providence is motivated by the compassion of the Almighty. One can conclude: if there is a reason for everything, it must somehow be connected to the everlasting love of God.
The psalmist recorded all the things God had done to their lives starting from the beginning of creation. “God who made the heavens, who spread out the earth upon the waters, who made the great lights— the sun, the moon and stars…” to the history of people of Israel. The psalmist wanted to acknowledge the God who did everything in his power to love his people. In other words, the psalmist wanted to say: the story of humanity is actually God’s story. Our story is God’s story. And that is the heart of Psalm 136. Only by his grace, by his love, and by his kindness can we exist until today. God set the whole universe in order, he put the sun, moon, and the stars in the sky, giving us humans a perfect space for us to live. The great empire of Egypt could’ve crushed us in a second with its power, we could’ve died during 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the great kings of the world could easily pulverize our tiny nation, but the mighty hands of God would always be with us protecting us from any danger. The Hebrews shouts: ki le’olam chasdo, his love endures forever. Yes!
Thomas Merton says something in the same sentiment: “To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us — and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is grace, for it brings with us immense graces from Him.” Isn’t that the truth? If we want to trace every single event, every single moment, and every single breath, we can smell the aroma of God’s love throughout the history of our life.
I love Agatha Christie's crime novels. I believe I have read most of her 70 novels. Each time I pick up her book, I know that my mind will be stirred and I will have to deal with a crime, a mystery, the tension between characters, and some disturbing events. But I also know that in the end, no matter how complicated the case, at the end the hero of the story will always be able to solve the case, find the culprit, bring them to justice, and bring peace to all. I know for sure about the ending because I know Agatha Christie's way of writing. If we believe that God is the great author of our life, then we know that the end of our story, no matter how chaotic and doomed, will be a good one. Then, all we have to do is trust him enough to let him finish the story.
So friends, say it to yourself, repeat the phrase, memorize it: His love endures forever! When you are tempted to despair, ponder this thought: His love endures forever. When you want to give up, write this thought down and stick it on your dashboard: His love endures forever. Tell your husband: His love endures forever. Tell your wife: His love endures forever. Tell your children: His love endures forever. When you’ve had all you can take, when the world seems collapsing around you, stand up, lift your head, and shout to the skies: His love endures forever! No matter what's going to happen this upcoming new year: His love endures forever. If the new year is going to bring us so much hope and restoration: His love endures forever. If the new year is going to challenge us even further: His love endures forever. Consider how he has led you thus far. Think of the many promises he has made to walk with us in good times and bad times, even when we are down in the valley of the shadow of death.. . His love endures forever!
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us. Happy New Year, my friends.
Love and prayers,
A Glimpse of HopeDecember 24, 2020
Ask somebody what their Christmas wish is, I bet you they will say for this pandemic to be over and life can resume as normal. Who doesn't miss our annual family gathering with its delicious food and loved ones around the dining table? Who doesn't miss awesome Christmas pageantry and church candlelight service? This year, because of Covid, we have to make so many adjustments in almost every area of life. One person said to me, "The holiday this year sucks!!!" I can't agree more.
But Christmas is not always about what we wish for and what we can get. Often, Christmas is about thriving while striving. Check out what happened with Mary and Joseph on the first Christmas. Detached from their immediate family, alone, and perhaps scared for the road before them was unclear. They went on a journey miles away from Nazareth to Bethlehem and found nowhere to give birth to their son, so Mary and Joseph settled with an animal stable. They just committed to God's request to give birth, raise, and care for the Messiah. Perhaps they did not think far enough to know the risk before saying yes to the call. Nevertheless, they carried baby Jesus with a heart wide open. Mary, in particular, still didn't quite understand what was going on, but she allows the mystery of the Divine to penetrate her soul and give it room deep in her heart as she treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart." (Luke 2:19) We know later from the story that Mary and Joseph had to escape to Egypt as refugees because a power-thirst king Herod wanted to kill Jesus. Who would've thought that a little baby could create a drastic change in their lives?
I feel like God has a sense of humor by bringing every single soul on Earth to experience what Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus experienced during their first Christmas. Quiet, simple (in fact very sad), detached from their family, alone, scared, and scarce of all the glittery stuff of the world. Perhaps this Christmas is calling us to truly reflect on what Christmas is all about in its simplicity and scarcity so that we can appreciate life in the fullness of it. Apostle Paul said, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake, he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich." (2 Corinthians 8:9). We have been living in "plenty" where we have a roof over our head, food on our table, and family around us; and we forget the One who has made it possible for us to enjoy all of this. Perhaps, this Christmas is a chance for us to evaluate who has been on the throne of our heart.
Still, after realizing the true meaning of Christmas, it doesn't make it easier for us to comprehend the brutal reality of our world today. We are remembering those who got sick, those who are deeply concerned about the wellbeing of their family members, those who mourn the loss of their loved one, and those who lost their job, saving, and so much more because of Covid. If Christmas can give us a glimpse of hope, this is it: a baby was born in a manger on a dark night, in such a humble place, vulnerable, fragile, homeless, and a helpless baby. That baby is the Son of God who came to show us that even in our darkest night, light does exist and hope is possible. Yes, it is tiny. Yes, it is only a tiny spark of light; it is a tiny glimpse of hope, yet one day, it will take over the world and turn this world into a paradise. Yes, it may be hard for us to believe. But perhaps we can learn like Mary to treasure up this glimpse of hope and ponder it in our hearts.
Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
– Matthew 13:31-32
May the hope of the Lord will be our strength this Christmas Season and forever.
Merry Christmas, my friends,
Love and prayers,
A GiftDecember 10, 2020
One morning, as I was working on my project in my study, I heard a tapping sound on my window behind my back. Tap, tap, tap... I ignored the sound at first thinking that it must be a fallen twig hitting my window. But after one tap came another tap and another. That's not falling twigs, I said to myself. I turned my head toward the window and looked around and there was nothing. I turned back to my busy thought and continued my work on the computer. But as soon as I started clicking my computer keyboard, I heard another tap on the glass of my window. This time, without taking too much time, quickly I turned my head toward the window. There I saw a little bird with a red head tapping my window with her beak. She was floating in the air looking at the window and then tap, tap… and then she stood on the edge of my window sill looking toward me. It happened several times. I thought how weird. This bird wanting to come inside my house, maybe? Or, maybe this bird was looking at her own reflection and thought that it was her lover saying good morning to her? I kept looking at her antics before she flew away.
The next day, it happened again. Around the same time, this little bird came back tapping at my window. I greeted her good morning. I watched her until she flew away. On the morning of day three, I decided to wait for her. This time I was ready with my cellphone. I wanted to take a picture of this friendly little bird. The time moves so slow when you wait. That morning I couldn't really work on my project. I sat on the couch in front of my window. Looking outside to my backyard, my mind kept thinking of this little bird. I was hoping that she would visit me again so that I could record that loving visit she had done for the last two days. Surely, as soon as the sun was up, there she was flying down from the sky with her two tiny wings flapping and started tapping my window in front of me. Without missing the beat, I took my cellphone and videotaping her cool morning greeting to me. Believe it or not, she has been visiting me for the last four mornings. As I am writing this blog, I am hoping that she will visit me again. I don't know how long this lovely visit will last before she gets bored with me.
I believe that little bird is a gift from God to me to cope with the stress of this challenging time. I believe she is God's way of refreshing my soul. He sends her to me, personally, always during my work time to remind me that He still cares about me even in the midst of my weary days. It reminds me of that great passage that our Lord Jesus uttered when He delivered His sermon on the mount, "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?" (Matthew 6:26-27) Perhaps that little bird keeps coming to tell me, "Look at me, look at the way my Father in Heaven is taking care of me!" And with her gentle tap on the window, actually, she has been giving me a gentle tap on my shoulder to remind me, "God is taking care of you too, bro! Stop worrying!
What "little bird" has God been sending to you to remind you of His love?
If you don't mind, please share with me how you cope with this challenging time? Share with me how God has been faithful to you. Write me an email with your story: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Love and prayers,
P.S.: I shared the photo and video of the bird with my family, and my sister-in-law found out more about the kind of bird that has been visiting me: she is a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.
Thank YouNovember 26, 2020
Many of us have mentioned how different this year's holidays are going to be. Yesterday, as I and a couple of friends were putting up Christmas trees at our church sanctuary for the first Sunday of Advent, a friend told me that this year will be the first time in fifty years that he will be spending Thanksgiving without inviting other families. And another said that this is the first time he was decorating the church with a heavy heart. No one would expect that our life will go down this way.
Yes, it may be sad. It may be strange. It may be weird and isolated to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, but I hope that your joy remains. This year, you may only need to buy a smaller size turkey or just settle with a KFC chicken box and have a quiet dinner for two. It may sound depressing, but we can see it from the other way around. This year we may have just freed ourselves from the burden of cleaning and decorating our house and cooking for three families. We are given permission not to participate to be part in the annual political debate with your fanatical relatives around the dining table. And we can be less concerned about our precious china since your crazy four-year-old grand-nephew will not be at our house this year to destroy it. Today, we will have more time to make a shopping list for the Cyber Monday deals or start writing Christmas cards. For sure, many of us, this year, will have more time today to think of the many things we are thankful for.
Gratitude is an act of remembering. Remembering the big and small gifts we have received throughout our life. Remembering those who came before us who continue to inspire us to be strong in our faith. Remembering every hand that comes our way in helping us to be the person we are today. Remembering the God who was and is and is going to continue to be with us every step of our way. The list goes on. Often than not, our thanksgiving season went by unnoticed, and on Friday our minds quickly shift into Christmas mode without even giving ourselves a chance to pause, to remember, and to give thanks.
Today, with the prayer of Apostle Paul, "I thank my God every time I remember you!" (Philippians 1:3) This year marks my seventeenth Thanksgiving season with you. In Indonesia, people celebrate sweet seventeen as a sign of a child entering adulthood. Yes, I am celebrating sweet seventeenth Thanksgiving today. I remember enjoying my first "giant chicken". I remember my unique transitional times coming fresh from Indonesia as an architect and had to teach American kids about God which ended up them teaching more about slangs and American cultures :) I remember one holiday when my office is filled with sweaters and warm shirts from Trinity folks who probably thought that this poor Indonesian boy would not survive winter if he did not dress properly :) Today, I remember the chance you have given me to be your pastor. Something that I have never even dare to dream even for my wildest dream. I remember those who came on my way and now have gone before me who paved ways for me. I remember each one of you with fondness in my heart for accepting me the way I am despite my flaws and my shortcomings as a human. It is only by God's grace that we can continue in this journey of faith.
Friends, I pray that today your heart will be filled with joy of thanksgiving. The joy that comes only from the Lord no matter how weird and strange you may find your today's celebration is.
May God bless you on this Thanksgiving day.
Love and prayers,
PrayerOctober 23, 2020
During my conversation with our church folks, I often get to hear them lamenting about the uncertain situation of our world today and how they find themselves unable to focus to study the Bible or be on their knees to pray like before. And then they would share their guilty feeling about it. "I feel like I need to pray to God more, Vincent. But I don't know, somehow what my heart tells me to do, my body chooses to do other things. When I think about it, I feel really bad. But still, I can't seem to bring myself to pray in this depressing time. And now I get depressed about it. Like a circle of evil." said one person. I get this a lot during the eight months of the pandemic. My usual response is to share that I, too, get to feel this kind of heaviness in my heart sometimes. "Can you imagine how I feel when I have to prepare a sermon but cannot bring myself to pray? I feel worst!" I said.
I believe a lot of you share this sentiment with everything that's going on around us and especially with the election that is less than two weeks now. For you who find yourself unable to compose words to pray to God, too tired or anxious to pray, or simply have no desire to pray, I would like to share some funny stories that were collected by Anthony De Mello in his book "The Prayer of the Frog". These stories have helped me in the past and continue to help me in this present moment to realize the wide breadth of the meaning of prayer. You may find yourself smiling when you read these stories and at the same time being consoled by their wisdom. Be blessed.
A Hasidic tale:
Late one evening a poor farmer on his way back from the market found himself without his prayer book. The wheel of his cart had come off right in the middle of the woods and it distressed him that this day should pass without him having said his prayers.
So this is the prayer he made, "I have done something very foolish, Lord. I came away from home this morning without my prayer book and my memory is such that I cannot recite a single prayer without it. So this is what I am going to do: I shall recite the alphabet five times very slowly and you, to whom all prayers are known, can put the letters together to form the prayers I can't remember."
And the Lord said to His angels, "Of all the prayers I have heard today, this one was undoubtedly the best because it came from a heart that was simple and sincere."
An old man would sit down motionless for hours at church. One day a priest asked him what God talked to him about.
"God doesn't talk. He just listens," was his reply.
"Well, then what do you talk to him about?"
"I don't talk either. I just listen."
The four stages of prayer: I talk, you listen / You talk, I listen / Neither talks, both listen / neither talks, neither listens: silence.
Once the Master was at prayer. The disciples came up to him and said, "Sir, teach us to pray."
He taught them by telling this story:
Two men were once walking through a field when they saw an angry bull. Instantly they made for the nearest fence with the bull in hot pursuit. It soon became evident to them that they were not going to make it. So one man shouted to the other, "We've had it! Nothing can save us. Say a prayer! Quick!"
The other shouted back, "I've never prayed in my life and I don't have a prayer to this occasion."
"Never mind. The bull is catching up with us. Any prayer will do."
"Well, I'll say the one I remember my father used to say before meals: "For what we are about to receive, Lord, make us truly grateful."
Lesson: Nothing surpasses the holiness of those who have learned perfect acceptance.
A Rabbi once asked a pupil what was bothering him.
"My poverty, " was the reply. "So wretched is my condition that I can hardly study and pray."
"In this day and age," said the Rabbi, "the finest prayer and the finest study lie in accepting life as exactly as you find it."
"...the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans." Romans 8:26
Love and prayers,
Cup, Bowl, and BeyondOctober 9, 2020
Lesson from Ordinary Stuff: Cup, Bowl, and Beyond
If you are reading this midweek pick up while eating your lunch or sipping your cup of tea, take a moment to check out the plate, bowl, or the mug you are using to contain the content of your daily indulgence. Perhaps you are using your grandma's china that has been passed down for three generations or simple ceramic dishes you bought from IKEA. Notice that the purpose of this tableware is not affected by how fancy or how bland the design is. The real purpose is highly affected by the convex shape (the U-shape) or simply the hollow part of your dishes. Without this shape, a cup or a bowl will lose its function to contain your food. Can you imagine trying using a block of solid ceramic to contain your tea?
Ancient Eastern philosophers have this quote: "Unless a cup is empty, it cannot receive anything. To empty oneself of ego is to fill oneself with humility." From our bowls and cups, we can learn a life lesson about freeing ourselves from ourselves, one of the foundations of a healthy spiritual life that we can find in practicing humility. With all our achievements, accomplishments, and successes we can be full of ourselves by thinking that we are invincible. Along the same line, with our series of setbacks, disappointments, and shortcomings, we can also be full of ourselves by thinking that we are a failure. Think of a bowl that is filled with leftover food from a week ago, sitting in the corner of our refrigerator and we don't want to empty it because we're too lazy to do so. That bowl's life is stuck being full of bad stuff and not able to receive anything new and good because it's full. Being full of ourselves always putting ourselves at the center of our own universe and by doing so, we won't be able to experience the fresh newness of life that God is about to bring to us.
Therefore, if we find ourselves being like a block of solid wood, ceramic, or metal and trying to fulfill our purpose as dishes, then it is time for us to ask God to chisel, knead, or grind out the big chunk of our self so that it may become hollow and ready to be used for God's glory. Master Eckhart, a 13th-century German theologian, elevates "detachment" to the status of the ultimate virtue. "All other virtues have some regard for created things, but detachment is free from all created things." Eckhart adds that as great as love is, it compels us to love God and at the same time compels God to love us. "To be empty of all created things is to be full of God." *
The most excellent example of humility we find in Jesus's life as Apostle Paul declares it in his beautiful hymn of praise: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross." As Apostle Paul urges his people in the first century, he urges us too: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus!" Joyful and peaceful life can begin when we allow ourselves to be an empty cup or bowl for God's blessing to be poured out in us.
Love and prayers,
* From Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense
RefrigeratorOctober 2, 2020
Lesson from an Ordinary Stuff: Refrigerator
After a long hike under the sun, hot and sweaty, you go for the fridge. You open its door and reach to its shelves where you neatly organized all kinds of canned bubbly beverages. You take one, you pull the tab's ring of the canned drink, POP! I bet you can imagine the exuberant joy as the cool liquid flows down your throat and slowly rejuvenates your weary body. There's something magical about cold drinks on a hot day. Even more magical is how humans have found a way to bring the coolness inside our own homes.
Of course, enjoying a cold drink is only one function of the refrigerator, which the ultimate purpose is preservation. As I was deep cleaning my fridge last night, I found a frozen piece of cake inside a zip-lock container that was dated 2015 and it still looked fine. You don't have to bet whether I ate that cake or not because I dumped it right away. 'Cool temperature preserves food by slowing down the growth of microorganisms', read an article on Google. It gives fresh food a longer lifetime and we don't' have to keep throwing away food because it goes bad after one meal.
On a spiritual level, we certainly need a soul refrigerant. We are emotional beings that are more often than not controlled by our mood and impulses. We react according to the mood of the day. Unfortunately, our surroundings contribute a lot to our mood. Think of a situation; you wake up in the morning refreshed and in a chirpy mood after getting a boost from a cup of coffee. A minute later you receive a phone call from your boss that he finds a lot of errors on the project you were working on the day before and now you have to do a lot of corrections on top of a new pile of work that's yet to be worked on. Your heavenly morning turns to hell as quick as the blink of an eye. Guess how you are going to react?
Think of the many times we act unwisely because we were overcome by our anger, disappointment, or restlessness. Think of the times we hurt others' feelings because of our snappy comebacks or harsh comments. Think of how we have severed any relationship with others by our negative attitudes. The Bible says: "Hot tempers start fights; a calm, cool spirit keeps the peace." (Proverbs 15:18, MSG Bible). The question is how do we keep cool of our spirit? We certainly need a 'soul fridge' to help us preserve our relationship by slowing down the growth of 'evil-organisms' within our hearts each time we are tempted to say or do something foolish toward those around us.
At the night before Jesus was arrested to be crucified, He said to His disciples who were in a bad mood after Jesus made a comment about leaving them: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." (John 14:27) Jesus has left us with the most amazing, out-of-this-world soul fridge. This awesome soul fridge will enable us to face any circumstances with ease without having to worry about the sway of the cold-hot temperature of our being. But how come we often feel like we are so 'hot' all the times by so many things that are not right around us? Perhaps, because we forget to plug this soul fridge into the center of our hearts?
The combination of this never-ending pandemic and the election day that's less than a month away has caused us to be more anxious and frantic. It's easy to get 'hot' all the time. Boy, with that situation, I hope you don't forget to plug that soul fridge in your heart and let the soul fridge cool down your temper.
Love and prayers,
ShoesSeptember 18, 2020
Meditation on Ordinary Stuff: Shoes
The shoes we wear daily are somewhat a reflection of who we are. There are thousands or even millions of shoe models but we choose the ones that fit our personality best. Shiny handmade Italian leather shoes with an unorthodox color like yellow may reveal that you are a confident person who's not afraid to look different, and you will make sure people notice that. Simple black colored slip-on shoes, without any ornaments around it, and highly comfortable to be worn for any occasion may reveal that you are a pragmatic kind of person who likes simplicity and practicality. The choice of color, the model, and the materials of the shoes, even when you dress for the occasion, flow from the kind of person you are.
The way you care for your shoes also shows how much you care about detail. Unlike the face or the upper body of a person, feet are the last thing that people see, if they even want to see them. Therefore the shoes you wear aren't noticeable right away. A woman told me one time, "You can tell so much about a man from the way their shoes look." Perhaps she meant to tell me, you can judge the character of a person by the way they care about little-hidden-things. Something that can be surely be said about the character of God. Even Jesus said: “If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? "
But no matter the kind of shoes you choose or how much you care for your shoes, have you ever thought about wearing two different kinds of shoes for your feet at the same time? A sneaker on one foot and a high heel on the other? Or have you ever had the thought of only wearing one shoe for your left foot since the right one doesn't feel like wearing one that day? As crazy as our world is today, I have never seen a person with a sound mind wearing only one shoe. Shoes are designed to be a pair, completely equal with the same materials and quality. Unequal shoes will cause problems for those who wear them. Therefore unequal shoes are despicable things.
If you lose one shoe, what are you going to do with the one you have? No matter how precious that shoe is, most likely you will stop wearing it, store it in storage, or just dump it altogether. If that shoe can speak, it will say, "How can I live without my partner? What use is it for me to be in this world without my other half?" If you're thinking about replacing the lost one, wouldn't that be a useless effort? Since the lost one is irreplaceable. It has gone through many miles together and It has the same faded color and the same worn sole with the one shoe that you still have. Nothing can replace the lost shoe without making the exists one look strange simply because they are a match made in shoe manufacturer.
In life, I hope, your life is like the shoes you are wearing: that you can be as authentic as you can be by the things you say and do, that you will be looked after with great care by those who love you no matter how insignificant you think you are. Most importantly, I hope you have found a companion or two in this life's journey, someone who understands the way you think and feel and doesn't mind your quirks, someone who will walk with you side by side, and someone who will never leave you alone no matter what life throws at you until the end of time.
"I will never leave you nor forsake you!" (God)
Love and prayers,
ScarSeptember 4, 2020
Last Tuesday I went for a hike with a friend to celebrate her birthday. Her birthday happened last month but due to a series of heatwaves and smoky air, we had to postpone it until last Tuesday. At the end of our hike, I asked her about how she's doing, coping with the loss of her husband after more than a year. She paused a little and answered me, "The grief will never go away because when he died, part of me died with him. I guess I will live with that fact for the rest of my life." I caught a slight tremble in her voice. With that answer, I knew that she has not gotten over the grief. But as she said it, can she? Can anybody get over the grief of losing someone who has been the love of their life for more than fifty years? Can anybody get over the grief of anything at all? If getting over means completely forgetting the grief, I don't think it is possible.
Over time, grief may look like a scar. We are healed from the pain but the scar remains. Because every scar is accompanied by a traumatic story behind it; it's almost impossible to completely forget it. I can show you a scar on my leg when I fell into a ditch when I was in Kindergarten. The whole class was marching and my eyes caught a glimpse of a flying bird in the sky, I looked up for just a second but my right leg chose to take a dive into a gross sewer ditch. Or I can tell you about a burn scar on my right arm when my foolish cousin was waving a burning sparkle around and that hot sparkle landed on my arm during an Indonesian Independence Day celebration. Funny how I still remember vividly the event behind each scar even though they happened more than forty years ago.
I remember a quote from G.K. Chesterton: “Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel.” Every person has their own "hump", a scar, a traumatic event, or a sad story or two that make a person who they are. This the hump that we must carry for the rest of our lives.
In the Bible, we find the story of Jesus' glorious resurrection. Jesus was nailed on the cross, broken, and died, sealed inside the tomb for three days before God raised Him from the dead. His broken body now healed and restored and pain is no more but surprisingly, the scars remain. Why didn't God close up the nail marks on Jesus' hands and feet? Why didn't His Father completely remove the stab scar of the Roman soldier on Jesus' side? Why did God leave them open and visible for others to see? It's like a contractor who's doing a renovation job on a house that's filled with dry rot. He cleans the rot but leaves the broken wood as it is; open and unsealed, leaving the renovation job unfinished.
But isn't that what makes Jesus Jesus? When Jesus appeared to His reluctant disciples after His resurrection, He showed His scars to them to convince His disciples about His identity. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see..” (Luke 24:38-39) The scars in his hands and feet and his side point to a story of redemption when He died on the cross for us. They remind His disciples about the love He has for them. They remind Jesus' beloved that He who was crucified and broken is now alive and well. Jesus' scars also teach them that no matter how painful the journey of life is they can make it through; the scars may remind them about the story of Jesus' defeat but most importantly, they remind the disciples about the story of Jesus' victory. O yes, just like a combat warrior who comes home after winning a battle, he shows his bullet mark on his body to his family with pride to show them how he was able to endure and persevere and be a victor.
How about you? What does your scar mean to you and others?
Love and prayers,
At a Loss of WordsAugust 28, 2020
Have you ever felt that you've run out of good words to say because everything that's happening around you goes against your words? I have. As a pastor, I have a collection of encouraging words that I can use anytime I meet someone in need such as: 'Be strong!' 'This too shall pass.' 'God never tempts you more than you can handle.' 'There is a reason for everything.' 'There's light at the end of the tunnel' ' Do not fear, for God is with you'… and so on and so forth.
And of course, as a preacher, I also have collections of Bible verses up my sleeve so that I can use them whenever I need to encourage someone who is dealing with fear, sickness, or without hope. Yes, I quote them every Sunday with a true conviction coming from the bottom of my heart. But if each time I say it the circumstances go completely opposite of what I have said, will you still believe what I say? We're now going into the sixth month of the shelter-in-place situation and there is no clear indication that this pandemic will be over soon. At the beginning of March when it all began, I said "God will make a way out and we have to trust his leading." April came and I said, "Our hope is in the Lord, stay strong!" May and June came and I said, "Let's learn the lesson taught by God through this pandemic for He is making things new." Then July came, I started the sermon series on the Book of Exodus with the hope my church and I can learn about the hardship that the Israelites had and how God protected and guided them through it. People have been waiting for the realization of that promise of 'light at the end of the tunnel' but the more we wait the more we are unsure about it.
In the past two weeks, we who live in the Bay Area got hit by a power outage and days of a heatwave. Two Sunday ago, I preached of how Moses led the people to escape the hands of Pharaoh's armies by going through the Red Sea. Moses encouraged his people by saying, "Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:13-14) That Sunday, hours after I delivered my sermon, I heard the news that the lightning shower that happened earlier that Sunday morning had caused wildfires in many areas of our surroundings and now we found that a lot of people were displaced and lost their homes and once again we're dealing with the smoky air on top of everything that's happening in our personal life. I find myself at a loss for words. What else can I say about this? How can I say with conviction that the Lord will fight for us and we need only to be still? How can I, as a pastor, restore the damage of broken hope?
Whenever I feel a great weight hanging in my heart, I always turn to the Book of Psalms and read a chapter or two to calm my spirit. King David had a similar experience that he expressed through the beautiful psalm he wrote. He cried: "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death." (Psalm 22:14-15) What David was saying is: I am at a loss for words for my ruined life! I believe every one of us can share this deep sentiment that David had when we are bombarded by harsh situations over and over again without a sign of a way out.
What gives me strength whenever I am reading a depressing psalm like this is that the psalm almost always ends with a restored conviction of the power of God. The lament, in the end, turns to praise! David sings: "I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly, I will praise you. You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help." (Psalm 22:22-24) Quite a dramatic turn of mood, isn't it? I am not sure what caused David to swing from the state of "at a loss for words" to the excitement of bringing the whole nation to open their mouth in praising God. Perhaps David's honesty and his ability to pour out his deepest feeling to God have helped Him to overcome his own anguish. David was honest when he said, my mouth is dried up. Maybe at that moment, David was also saying, "God, I don't even know how to praise you when I feel like I am so close to death like this." When David was pouring out his heart to God, he was literally putting every weight he was carrying into the hands of the Almighty. At that very moment, David was stripped bare and vulnerable before God but at the same time, he's no longer carrying the heavy burden. Because now, everything is in God's hands: his feelings, his heartaches, his burdens, and his very own life. When one surrenders like that, one can begin to ease up and float to the surface of a drowning sea. Something that we all can learn to do more.
"The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans."
– Romans 8:26
Love and prayers,
First LoveAugust 13, 2020
When Viola, my fifteen-year-old daughter, told me that she was in love with someone at her school, I didn't really know how to react. Part of me thought, "That's a normal phenomenon for anyone who is maturing, from childhood to adulthood. What's the big deal about it?" And the other part of me, perhaps, was denial. I wasn't ready to see my daughter, my baby, my angel, to fall in love with a guy other than me. And the thing that bothered me so much, perhaps, was the fact that Viola looked so happy and excited about this guy. I thought, who is this guy who stole my daughter's heart? How dare he! During our conversation the other day, jokingly I reminded Viola, "Viola, remember, I am your first love because I am the first amazing guy you've ever known the minute you were born into this world." Of course, she rolled her eyes at me and said, "Stop it, Papi! You're weird."
O yes, as you can predict it, as a good parent, I must have a series of investigation periods where I asked a lot of questions to Viola about this "new guy", questions like:
'Who is this guy? Where does he live? What kind of family does he have? Why do you like this guy? How do you know that he is good for you? There are billions of guys in this world, why did you pick him? How do you know that this is love and not just a silly attraction?' On and on and on… I bet you are thinking: poor Viola having this OCD dad. I just couldn't help it. I had to make sure that my daughter gets the best of guys. Someone that at least better than her old man (which is impossible in my opinion) HA! :)
I also knew that this feeling of denial could also come from the fact that I have lost touch of that so-called 'puppy love' reality that happened to me when I was about the same age as Viola now. Boy, that happened three decades ago. I forgot the exhilarating feeling, the silliness, the stupidity, and sleepless nights thinking about the one I loved. Yup, all the irrationality of falling in love for the first time. The love song that captured my sentiment at the time was a song sung by Nikka Costa, "First Love": 'Everyone can see there's a change in me. They all say I'm not the same kid I used to be. Don't go out and play. I'll just dream all day. They don't know what's wrong with me and I'm too shy to say. It's my first love. What I'm dreaming of when I go to bed. When I lay my head upon my pillow don't know what to do.' Didn't I have to go through those crazy phases of falling in love when I was with my wife before? Why do I now feel all weird about my daughter's feelings? Do you still remember how you felt when you fell in love for the first time?
God, through John the Patmos, reminded the church in Ephesus about the first love. “I see what you’ve done, your hard, hard work, your refusal to quit. I know you can’t stomach evil, that you weed out apostolic pretenders. I know your persistence, your courage in my cause, that you never wear out. “But you walked away from your first love—why? What’s going on with you, anyway? Do you have any idea how far you’ve fallen? A Lucifer fall! “Turn back! Recover your dear early love. No time to waste, for I’m well on my way to removing your light from the golden circle." (Revelation 2:2-5, Message Bible) Often times, we forget the deepest feeling we once had with God (if that even existed). Those times when we felt like God is our best friend that made us willing to spend a lot of time in prayer and in reading the Bible or the time when we felt like God had been so so good through all his blessings to us that made us feel well-loved by the Almighty. But routines, problems, and the hecticness of life almost erase that exhilarating feeling. Now we feel the dimming of that joyful love. And as time goes on, that feeling goes away with it. Suddenly we find ourselves in the desert of our spiritual life: dry and parched from all living sources. We no longer have the desire to pray. And we no longer have nice things to say to God other than complaint and anger especially around this time of uncertainty. We even wondered if God has ever cared enough about us for allowing all this suckiness to happen. We can 't even recall any good thing that God has given us because life is so darn difficult for us right now to be on our knees and give thanks to God. Give thanks for what? We ask. For this pandemic?
We have forgotten our first love, our "puppy love" time! That's the time when we easily forgive our loved one no matter how annoying they are. That's the time when we were willing to go miles and miles away doing a dumb chore for them without feeling like a chore at all. That's the time when we felt like they are the best thing that has ever happened to us no matter how imperfect or flawed this person is, we loved them anyway. Yes, if we find ourselves being estranged with God, I think it's time for us to remember our first love with Him. Remember how we first believe the God in Christ Jesus. Remember the very first time when we said yes to shoulder the cross and to follow Him for eternity. Remember why we said it in the first place. Perhaps by remembering our first love in Him, the joy of our heart can be restored fully to the brim, again.
Love and prayers,
Second HomeJuly 31, 2020
Last Tuesday, after a fun drive with my family at the beach, I made a quick stop at church. I told my family to drive around the church neighborhood while waiting for me to finish my stuff. Varen, my nine-year-old boy, had to make a "pit stop", so before my wife took off with the kids, Varen went with me and I took him to the church restroom. As we walked into the church patio, Varen said, "Wow...it's been so long!" His eyes were scanning the entire church building checking if there were any changes in the place that's very familiar to him. Indeed, since March, it has been a full five months that Varen has been absent from coming to church. "Papi, take me to your office!" He took my hand and we went to my office. "I thought you had to go to the restroom?" I asked. "It can wait!"
Upon entering my office, he noticed the missing round table that used to be in the corner of my office where I had my desktop computer that Varen always used to kill time whenever he had to wait for me. "It looks so empty, Papi. What happened to the table?" he asked. "I use it in the sanctuary." "Take me there!" Varen urged me. I unlocked the sanctuary and he found the now empty sanctuary. About two months ago, I stacked all the pew chairs so that I can better count and plan how many people I could have inside the sanctuary by following the 6 feet social distancing protocol once we are allowed to go back to church physically. Varen took the time to run around the empty sanctuary before he finally said to me, "I have to pee!"
With a big sigh, Varen said, "Papi, I miss my second home." I looked at him. I caught the twinkling in his eyes as he was remembering all the good memories he had in the past. The church has been a big part of Varen's life. Every Sunday, almost never fail, he came to church and spent three to four hours to worship, eat lunch, and to hang out with his friends. I asked him why he misses church and Varen said, "I miss my friends, I miss Sunday school, I miss being in the Christmas play, singing, and playing with my friends…" Varen went on with a long list of the things he misses from his second home.
I was touched by what Varen said. I totally share his sentiment. I am saddened by the fact that because of this pandemic, we are scattered and not able to spend time to fellowship with our friends like before. I, too, miss my church friends each one of them, I miss the worship time, the fellowship, the ministries we used to do together. At that moment with Varen, as saddened as I was, I also felt happy by what Varen feels about the church. I am happy that Varen has found a place where he can find his comfort, joy, and love; a place he can call home. And this place is the church among many other places in the world, a symbol of God's presence in the world.
I believe in Christ there is no good-bye, but see you later! We are always united, no matter how scattered and displaced we are at this moment. Because the God whom we worship is the one God who holds everything in His hands. This one God will keep us one no matter how far or near we are. I know one day we will be able to come back to our second home to pray, sing, and have fellowship together and Varen will be able to visit his Sunday school room, meeting his friends to play and hang out. Until then, we can certainly pray for the well being of each other.
"One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock."
– Psalm 27:5-6
Love and prayers,
Future GloryJuly 23, 2020
During this quarantine time, my brothers in Indonesia, who own and manage their own orchestra in Indonesia, have to endure hardship by not having any gigs for the last four months. The source of steady income for their family is cut for awhile since the entertainment industry usually draws a large crowd that could expose people with the virus. Bored from staying home doing nothing, they gathered a number of friends and started making music, recording it, and posting it on youtube. When I saw their first youtube content during this pandemic, I was very impressed although I could see there is room for improvement there if they choose to stick with this venue for the long run.
As I was watching it, my mind wandered to a distant memory of how my brother, Christian, used to hate music when he was little. It was a daily struggle that my mom had to bear in order to make him practice his guitar. My mom was a piano teacher and of course, she wanted all her four children to be able to play a musical instrument. Let me tell you, my mom is a super gentle person but when it comes to learning music, boy, she could be a totally different person. She could be very stern in exercising discipline for musical learning. Each one of us could select our own musical instrument and must stick with it until we gained some expertise in it. Like me, I chose to play the piano, Christian chose guitar and so on. And I had to practice my piano at least half an hour a day and if I forgot to practice my piano, I couldn't go out to play with my friend or do any fun activities. Dare I not to practice for a couple of days, hell could be set loose by this tender-hearted mother. :)
For some reason, the four of us, especially Christian, did not really enjoy playing music in the beginning. Christian simply detested the idea of doing music. As you can tell I witnessed many nights filled with tears where mom and Christian had to argue with each other about practicing music. Christian would storm out from his piano bench, slam the door of his room, and cry. I remember my dad and I said to mom, "If Christian doesn't like music, let him be, release him from this painful duty of practicing guitar." Unflinching, mom kept pushing and pushing Christian to stick with his music. We simply did not understand why mom had to force us to do music until one day she said, "We are not a rich family. I may not be able to leave you with a lot of money when I die, but I can equip you with this skill to survive the world." Her statement sticks with me until now.
I don't know what happened in between, but over time, I could see Christian had become to fully enjoy music around his middle school year. Not only did he practice his guitar without arguing, but he also wrote his first composition and performed it in front of the whole family. Now, Christian along with my youngest brother, Alvine, owns an orchestra production and built their home from music. I guess the proverb: "Mothers knows best" is not far from the truth. I remember one day Christian said to my mom, "Thank you ma for pushing me to practice music at the time when I did not know well enough about things in life." I believe when my mom heard that statement, her heart must be filled with joy. I could imagine in my mom's head she was responding, "I told you so!" but she only responded with a smile and a big hug to Christian.
Reflecting on this story, Apostle Paul writes to the Romans: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." Just like Christian, my brother, we don't know what we don't know because we only know what we know (if that makes sense). We question all the bad things that happen to us as a hardship that we must endure with no meaning to it. We even raise our hands to heaven with anger accusing God of inflicting pain to our life. Have we ever stopped to think that perhaps every negative things that happen in our life is a way for God to bring out good? Further Apostle Paul writes, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." Note the words "in all things". It means everything: the good, the bad, and the ugly of life can be used by God to declare His glory upon us. In the midst of an unending pandemic, violence, and chaos in our government, perhaps God is training us to be patient and to stick with our faith. Perhaps God is teaching us how to become more human with each other, no matter the color of our skin or our belief we are called to pursue peace. Perhaps God is teaching us to trust him more than human leaders. If mom knows better, how much more about God? Perhaps our upside-down-life we are experiencing right now is like a painful musical practice we must endure in order for us to be able to produce the most incredible musical masterpiece. Who knows!
Love and prayers,
(If you'd like to see my brothers' work in their Stradivari Orchestra, you can watch this video on YouTube.)
Mission PeakJuly 10, 2020
Yesterday, Viola, my daughter, and I and several friends took a hike on Mission Peak. I kept hearing about the symbolic importance of this hike especially if you live around the Fremont area. It is not only that the hike is notoriously difficult because you must climb 2,500 feet in just three miles that makes it very popular but also because of its view from the top of the peak that overlooks the entire Fremont area that will take your breath away. Some friends who have done the climb before said that on the way to the peak there's not much vegetation, so it is better to avoid the heat of the day because the sun can hit you badly and you could get exhausted faster before even reaching the middle trail. The best is either I go before sunrise or sunset to add the awe factor of the whole adventure. I chose the first one.
I reached the trailhead at 4 AM in the morning and started to walk right then. As cautioned, the hike was tough. Right in the beginning, the trail goes up and continues to incline steadily with only a few flat areas where I could rest. And as you can imagine, I could feel the stretch and the tension in the lower part of my body: on my thigh, knee, foot. I thought to myself, what have I gotten myself into?? A friend warned me beforehand that Mission Peak is a gnarly butt buster. That early morning I found out that wasn't a joke!
Let me tell you, walking in the dark early morning with friends and my daughter was a joy. Our surroundings were pitch black but we had no trouble walking because above us the moon and the stars were shining bright. A rare sight for us who live in the city most of the time who are so addicted to our artificial lighting. The air was cool and crisp and the walking got heavier as we went up but my heart was at peace. As we walked, we talked about our daily life, our struggles, church, and life in general. We giggled and groaned listening to each other stories and occasionally we stopped to calm our breath and took the time to enjoy the sky or to preserve the memories with our cellphone camera. We even commented that when we journey with friends, the burdens are shared among us. Therefore we won't feel the sharp bite of the pain of the journey as much as we journey this life alone.
The last quarter mile toward the peak, the climb became harder and more treacherous. You really have to look for a safe path to support your body otherwise your foot would slip from the gravelly ground. After about two hours climb from the trail head, we finally reached the peak. Thank God for the basketball training I've been getting from Varen, my nine-year-old son, every day, helping me get this endurance to tackle the peak. My body was drenched in sweat and my legs were burning but all the exhaustion disappeared in an instant as I was approaching the peak. The view was spectacular. I cannot describe it with words. The dance of the sky color as the moon was saying goodbye to the sun to go to bed that morning and as the sun took the center place of the stage of the universe with all its splendor. Gorgeous!
The words of the psalmist in Psalm 121 came to mind and as I watched the scene before me, I recited in my heart:
"I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be slipped and He who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your coming and going from this time on and forevermore."
The tears came down my face. Over and over again I was reminded of God's faithfulness to me. This time through the works of His hand. He who spreads the hills and told the sun to rise told me that morning that He is able. If He is able to create this majestic scene before me, how much more will He be able to help me through this life journey? During this unprecedented time of our lifetime, my heart often clouded by worry, doubt, and anger, and unknowingly I have spent more time being sour about my circumstances than spending more time bathing in God's grace that is so readily available around me. Yesterday morning, my heart was full of gratefulness for everything that God has done, is, and will do for me.
Mission Peak hike yesterday had given me a spiritual meaning. In this life, we are on a mission to reach the peak of life. The peak for us, Christians, is the Presence of God and to dwell in the House of the Lord forever. The journey is long and the road is treacherous and steep but the reward is great. And we certainly don't have to travel this road alone. There's always a travel companion, a friend who has the same vision to reach the goal to share the road together.
Friends, when you are feeling down, take a friend or two, go to nature, and see God's handiwork. Witness it for yourself that God is able to do anything. He is able to create a beautiful creation out of the ashes of our life. Yes, nothing is impossible for Him and for those who believe.
Love and prayers,
Freedom to Wear a MaskJuly 2, 2020
Freedom is an interesting thing. Some people think if we are truly free, then we should be allowed to do anything that pleases our hearts. There should be no restrictions nor boundaries in whatever we are about to do. If there is a limit, even an iota of limit to our freedom, then that's not freedom after all.
Watching and reading the news lately, my attention got caught to the whole debate of a facemask. Social media is filled with all kinds of videos, suggestions, even memes about why one should wear or not wear a facemask. I never knew that a facemask could create such a dramatic division between American people. Some say that the government has violated their human right by enforcing to wear a facemask in public places in order to curb the spread of the virus. Some quoting the Bible saying that wearing a facemask is obstructing the way we breathe, therefore obstructing the Divine Spirit that was blown into our nostrils at the time of creation. On the other side of the arguments, some reason that we cannot afford to experience a major setback in battling this virus by wasting the entire three months quarantine time just to go back to where we were or even worse with the increase of more cases. Some shout in fewer sentences: I don't want your virus, wear a mask!
In the first century, Apostle Paul spoke about the limit of Christian freedom addressing the debate whether Christians in Corinth could eat or not eat the food offered to idols. Paul's address could certainly offer valuable insight of what we should do in regards to wearing or not wearing facemask during the pandemic. Paul said: “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others." (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)
Paul offered three layers of filters in decision making about wearing a facemask.
Is it (wearing mask) beneficial? I read a clever statement that my friend Chris Mello wrote on her Facebook page. This is what she wrote: "For those who don’t like wearing their mask, think of the benefits (besides the obvious ones, which is why we wear our mask in the first place): 1. Bad breath? No problem. 2. A blemish on your face? It’s covered. 3. Don’t have time to wax or pluck? Don’t let your mask slip. 4. Save $$ on makeup (below eyes only) 5. Want to pierce your nose, lip, or tongue but not sure if it will go over with others? Try it out for a while under the safety of your mask. 6. Annoyed with someone? Go ahead and make a face at them. Just be sure to keep your eyes neutral so they don’t suspect. So many benefits that maybe you didn’t think of when you were wearing your mask." Lots of benefits as you see it. :)
Is it (wearing mask) constructive? I have to say, it is not comfortable. It's muted the audio of my speech and others as well. For a person with hard-hearing like me who sometimes has to read people's lips in order to understand what they are saying, a facemask could be problematic. And during a hot day, wearing a facemask is no fun. I also have to admit I don't like the aroma of my own spit. In a way, I have to say I don't like it but weighing so many aspects around it, wearing a mask, for sure can help stop the spreading of the germs. Holding on to the ancient wisdom's saying: 'Do to others what you want them to do to you' because I do not want others to give their cooties to me, then the only logical implication is for me is to wear a facemask. Yes, it is constructive because it keeps everyone healthy and safe.
Lastly, the most important aspect is this: "No one should seek their own good, but the good of others." Wearing a facemask is not about me but more about others. I wear a facemask, most importantly, not because I don't want to get sick but because I don't want to be an asymptomatic patient who makes things worse because accidentally and unknowingly I become a spreader. In case you forget, we are dealing with a powerful and invisible virus. How can we be so sure that we don't have any of it in our body? Wearing a mask is an act of humility. It gives us the benefit of the doubt that we are not invincible and untouched by the virus. It gives us an awareness that perhaps we are a carrier and we refuse to spread by wearing the mask. If what makes me uncomfortable can make others safe and healthy, then it is worth it.
This weekend, we are celebrating our Independence Day. There is so much homework for America to do in order to ensure our freedom for the future. There are many issues, way more important than the issue of facemask, that require us to pay close attention to. If we all can stop and ponder how we can stop our egocentric effort in seeking our own good and start looking at what we can do to bring good to others, then we can celebrate our independence in a much more meaningful way. In the end, isn't that what freedom and the sense of independence is all about? The freedom to bring goodness to others.
Love and prayers,
Nailing Jello on the WallJune 19, 2020
Do you know how hard it is to teach your own kid piano lessons? Super hard! It's almost impossible sometimes. I heard the wise said that trying to educate your own kids is like nailing jello to the wall. I believe I have shared with you years ago that I failed teaching piano to Viola my fourteen-year-old. Not only did she dislike my way of teaching, but she also claimed that she was traumatized by my strict pedagogy. So, instead of taking piano, Viola is learning flute from her school teacher and she gets pretty good with it.
I have my second chance during this Shelter-in-place. Varen, my nine-year-old, has been taking piano lessons from a piano teacher for three years. But because of the pandemic, all the physical presence has been stopped and replaced by online lessons. We found out that Varen had trouble focusing on working his piano skill through the internet. We put the cellphone on a table with its camera looking at Varen on piano and the teacher on the other side of the line watching, correcting, and giving instruction to Varen. The magic of our modern world! Sometimes we had to change the angle of the camera because the teacher wanted to see Varen's fingers or the music up close, and that's pretty distracting. Not only that, I don't know where Varen got his silly nerve (Vania said he got it from me :)), so, oftentimes he hides from the camera altogether and only showing his moving fingers or he completely disappears causing his teacher to wonder until Vania comes looking for Varen. The teacher literally had no control over this virtual lesson while we were too busy doing other things than to stay with Varen for the entire thirty minutes.
Not only that virtual piano lessons don't work, but Varen has also been begging to get a lesson from me. I always refused to teach him because I did not want to repeat the same mistakes I did with my daughter. I would rather spend some money to see my kid excel than becomes a piano hater. After encountering roadblock after roadblock, I have decided to teach my son piano myself. In my mind I thought, this is my redemption time. I failed the first time, maybe God is giving me a second chance. Brave moves!
The first two lessons worked like a gem. Varen obeyed every single word of my teaching. But starting the third, fourth, until now, I literally had to bottle up all my emotion so that I won't blow my top off. We argued a lot during lessons which caused me to wonder who is the teacher and who is the student. He thinks that he has played the right notes while in fact, Varen completely went on the wrong track. And the problem is he doesn't want to admit that he was making a mistake and let me correct him. He kept saying that he did everything right and I was not paying attention to his playing. I ended up recording his playing just to show him my point. We argued endlessly about the right note or the right finger positions. I almost ran out of tricks up my sleeve trying to teach piano to my boy. Of course, a couple of times during each lesson, I blew up. Who wouldn't? if you know that famous Bible passage that says: "God will never tempt us more than we can handle", let me tell you, it doesn't work with your own kid. God may be merciful, but your own kid will tempt you mercilessly.
Last night after an hour and a half "battle" filled with tears and anger trying to teach Varen a new piano song, Varen gave me a big hug and he said, "Thank you for teaching me piano, papi." I was shocked. Astonished, I asked him, "So, you like the way I teach you?"
"Yeah, of course." he answered.
"So, what about the screaming and crying that you did?" I asked.
"You are strict. But when you are angry you look funny. I like it." Varen answered quickly and ran to get his video game. I was stunned, speechless. Well, I just don't get the mind of a nine-year-old boy.
This morning as I ponder about my time with Varen, I just hope that one day he can remember all the times I've been trying to be a good father, a good piano teacher, and a jello nailer to him. It is not easy. It is super hard, but I know it is worth it.
"Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it."
– Proverbs 22:6 (ESV)
Happy Father's Day with love and prayers,
Application is EverythingJune 6, 2020
According to Pew Research Center that surveyed more than 35,000 Americans from all 50 states about their religious affiliations, they found out that 70.6% of that many people identified themselves as Christian. Now, if that's a reflection of the whole United States, we could conclude that Christians dominate the US population. My question then, why is there still so much unrest, hatred, prejudice, terror, violence, and racism in this Christian land? I wondered if Jesus did not make clear his gospel of love. Here is an illustration:
A soap manufacturer and a pastor were walking together down a street in a large city. The soap manufacturer casually said, "The gospel you preach hasn't done much good, has it? Just observe; there is still a lot of wickedness in the world and a lot of wicked people too!"
The pastor made no reply until they passed a dirty little child making mud pies in the gutter. Seizing the opportunity, the pastor said, "I see that soap hasn't done much good in the world, for there is much dirt and many dirty people around."
The soap manufacturer replied, "Oh well, soap is only useful when it is applied."
And the pastor said, "Exactly, so it is with the gospel!"
In a simple way of saying it, obedience is simply about applying what you believe; it's about putting our belief into practice. We heard what Jesus said about loving God and loving one another as ourselves. We believe that, but it won't do anything good without putting it into action. James said it so perfectly, "Faith without works is dead! Useless! It will make no change, no good benefit will ever come to our personal lives and to the world we live in." Application is everything; but, here we're not only not following what the Bible asks us to do, we also do the exact opposite to what the gospel prescribes us.
Apostle Paul said, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." We say, "Oh, I don't like them because they don't have the same skin color of mine and they don't worship the same God as I do. "
Jesus said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. We say, "Dominate them! Destroy them!"
Jesus said: "Blessed are the peacemaker." We say: "Oh no! We like our violent way of life, so then, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.
Jesus said, "Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." We say, "If you hurt my friend, I'll take down your businesses and destroy your community."
The list goes on...
My heart is broken and my spirit is restless with the chaos that happened in the last week. My gut is churning with sadness. We don't need one more problem on our plate but this is our world today. It's showing its bad and ugly face to the whole world. I lament for the death of George Floyd and all other victims of racial violence. I am saddened by the violence and the unrest that made people succumb in fear. As the first generation Indonesian who came to this country sixteen years ago, I may not have the whole history in my pocket to understand the story of racism against the black people in this country. I may not have the whole context to come up with the right words to console the victims or to condemn the perpetrators of this violence. But I know one thing, that this whole chaos must stop. We must unroot evil, racism, hatred, and prejudice in our country no matter the cost because it stands in the exact opposite of our Christian faith. It must end now. I love Nelson Mandela's saying, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.” I know we are capable to love and bring peace into our life. For certain, there is so much homework for us Christians to do; to apply what Christ has taught us into practice.
Love and prayers,
Learning to ForgiveMay 29, 2020
Storming out of her room, Viola, my fourteen-year-old daughter, shouted to me, "Papi, you would be proud of me!" Jokingly I said, "What trouble have you done now?" "You know (name) my friend, right?" I nodded. "You know that we didn't talk to each other since we graduated from middle school, right? We didn't talk for the whole year." I know that Viola and this friend had a disagreement that caused a huge rift in their relationship. Before that split, they were buddies since they were in Kindergarten. Numerous sleepovers and play dates, and one day, poof! They stopped communicating. As if the whole season of beautiful springtime turned into ice in a snap of a finger by a magic evil goblin in a fairy tale. Viola continued, "Out of the blue I called her today. I thought she would not answer my call, but she answered. I said to her that if I made a mistake I am sorry and I hope you forgive me. Our relationship is too precious to go down the drain. And she said that she's sorry too about everything that happened. You know, Papi, I am so relieved. It's like a huge stone is lifted up of my shoulders." Viola smiled. I gave Viola a thumb up and told her how proud I was.
Lately, Vania and I have been talking about how to teach our kids Christian values. I think the conversation was triggered by these many hours we have to spend with our children now since the shelter-in-place order in March. Watching our kids grow bigger in front of our eyes, perhaps scared us. We wondered, can they live a good life after we're gone from this earth? We know the world has become more egocentric and narcissistic. So we ask, can they be so selfless to love and to care for others as Christ taught us? We see that the world is becoming unforgiving, we tend to fix the blame than to fix the problem, point our fingers, and find the scapegoat than ask for forgiveness and to forgive. The world doesn't always give my kids a healthy spiritual lesson. From Netflix to Tik-Tok, from Facebook to Nintendo games, they teach different kinds of values than the ones that we believe in. To ban my kids to access them altogether will not solve the problem, how about giving them a solid foundation so that they may know the right from wrong and the good from the bad.
Not only that, but I am also sure that my kids caught me many times being cranky or anxious with my own thoughts. When you have to stay at home most of the time during this SIP order, you can barely hide your feeling anymore. There were times when I drove my kids crazy and I showed the worst version of me to my family. Something that I am not proud of and I wish that my kids won't remember my crappy attitudes during this crazy time. But who knows? The world doesn't show a good example and even worst, me, their father, failed to do the job of showing goodness.
So when Viola shared her story, I couldn't be more proud of her. I thought, maybe we're not too bad as parents. I know my own flaws as a sinful person, my weakness, and my own dark side. If I count all my shortcomings, then there is no way that I will be qualified to teach a single Christian value to my kids. What kind of teacher is one who teaches something to other people while he himself is still struggling to master his own lesson? No one would want to learn Math from a person who is struggling to solve multiplication problems. There is so much that I need to learn and master and at the same time, there is so much that I must teach my kids fast before they become adults and stop listening to us or before I have to face my Creator!
In this matter, I too, need to learn forgiveness. Not only that I need to learn to forgive others, I also need to learn to forgive myself. I need to forgive myself when oftentimes I cannot be the best role model that my kids have. Forgiving myself is not a free pass or an excuse to keep doing the wrong things without any effort of transformation. In the end, only God can fully forgive. I know that He will forgive me for my lack of forgiveness toward others and toward myself.
If you asked me what have I learned during this shelter-in-place time, I will say to you: forgiveness.
"Cast all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you."
– 1 Peter 5:7
Love and prayers,
MemoryMay 22, 2020
On her last visit to the US, my mom left me with a big bag of clothing that belonged to my dad. Dad passed away six years ago due to lymph cancer. Those shirts are full of color with some fancy patterns around some of them. My dad was always a trendy-dandy guy. He loved wearing nice and fancy clothing. My mom said maybe I can wear it someday. Honestly, there was a weird feeling creeping in when I heard my mom say that I could wear them one day. I guess I just don’t want to have all the bad memories of losing him coming back to me. So, I put them on the top shelf of my clothing cabinet and never really touched them, and eventually I even forgot about it.
One day when I was doing a deep cleaning around the house, my eyes stumbled upon that big bag. I opened it and took some of the shirts out. My mom wrapped them inside the bag really good that preserved the smell, and aroma of my dad’s clothing cabinet. There was a combination of the aroma of an old wooden cabinet, humidity, his cologne, and a bunch of mothballs. The smell that’s so familiar to me that I didn’t encounter for such a long time. It was the smell of my dad when I gave him a hug or when we were goofing around. It all came back through that big bag of clothing. Vividly, some of the good memories were flashing in front of me: with the blue striped shirt he took me to a New Year’s party. With a nice collared black batik shirt he taught Bible Study at church. Every shirt reminded me of him and how he looked on different occasions. I broke into tears. I missed him so much.
There is something about memories. They shape who we are in this present time in good and bad ways. Those memories stick within us and we carry them until we die. They are useful to keep us close to the ground and teach us how to be humble. The lives we have now did not just come from nowhere. I, for sure know, that I am a “product” of the love that happened between my parents and their teachings, and their life examples have made me the way I am now.
The memories I have are also useful for me to look forward to the future. Those memories give me strength in times of need. When I feel discouraged, I will remember the optimistic attitude that my dad had; and in that moment of remembrance I will be made aware that if my dad could, I can.
Christians are invited to remember and anticipate. The past and the future break into our present life of faith. In the past we remember the great act of redemption in which God delivered us from sin, death, and despair through the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ; and in the future, we anticipate the final entry into the New Jerusalem, to be with God forever.
When Jesus broke the bread during the last supper, he said, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” That statement is an invitation for us to remember His great love for us, everything that He has done for us. It is also an invitation to look forward; that the broken body of Jesus that we “eat” will be restored in the day of resurrection and with that, our life that is filled with so much brokenness will also be restored with him.
Friends, this coming Monday is Memorial Day, the Day of Remembrance. I think this year, we have a lot more to remember. Not only that we remember the fallen heroes of our country that gave their lives in order to usher in the freedom that now we enjoy, but we also remember the many lives that have been taken by COVID-19. During our remembrance, I pray that we can also learn a big deal from this tragedy of how we can better this world together. This pandemic has stripped away layers of problems that our world has been hiding: economic inequality, racism, messy health care system, environmental problems, the list goes on. Through our remembrance, we can also be strengthened by the fact that the Lord is an unchanging God. The God who was with our forefathers, heroes, and those who have gone before us is the God who is and will always be with us now and forever. Remember His love and forget not his benefits!
Love and prayers,
Trusting is not for The Faint of HeartMay 8, 2020
To trust takes a lot of guts. Oftentimes, it's not easy to do, because there is no 100 percent guarantee that the person we have given our trust to would carry on whatever task we ask and expect them to do. We heard stories of betrayal, in fact, perhaps we were victims of betrayal at one point in our life. We were cheated or even backstabbed by our coworker or even loved ones. Broken promises that have caused us to promise to never trust anyone ever again.
Trusting is not easy because we literally have no control over the person to whom we are giving our trust to and at the same time, we have no control over the very thing we trust that person with. Just like dropping our baby to a daycare. We are giving away our control over our baby to the babysitter which, at the same time we are giving away our baby for a short period of time. If we don't have trust in the babysitter at the daycare, this will never happen. Trusting means letting go with the hope that the other party, the one we are putting our trust, will keep the promise to carry on the task as we hope.
To trust is like learning to bike or swim for the very first time. I still remember when I taught my kids to swim. First thing, I had to gain my kids' trust by holding their hands as they tried to practice their swimming moves. O yeah, my kids kept saying over and over again: "Papi, don't let go! Don't let go!" As if I was going to drown them.
"Okay now, I will launch you. Just feel that you can float in the water and let the movement of your feet carry you forward. Now, I will release your hands so that you can now practice your hand moves. I won't go far. I will catch you if you start to drop."
"NOOOO!!! Don't let go! Hold me, Papi! Hold me!!! they screamed. The swimming lesson would fail miserably had my kids never let go of me and give their trust to me.
Or consider Henri Nouwen's story about a trapeze artist:
"One day, I was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, in his caravan, talking about flying. He said, ‘As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.’ ‘How does it work?’ I asked.
‘The secret,’ Rodleigh said, ‘is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar.’
‘You do nothing!’ I said, surprised.
‘Nothing,’ Rodleigh repeated. ‘The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe’s wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.’"
Can you imagine yourself as a flyer, letting go of that bar and flying to the catcher? Trusting is not for the faint of heart, that's for sure!
Yet, trusting is liberating. We will never go far with our lives if we don't trust. We will never be able to experience the wonder of swimming in the water, biking through the hilly side of the mountain, or flying high as a trapeze artist. Life is a series of trust. Think back on your life and see how many times you had to let go of things and trust others! And see how far you have traveled in your journey based on the trust you have given! You trust your elementary teachers to teach you good education, the pilot in the airplane to take you safely to your vacation's destination, your spouse to care and love you forever, your kids that they will do good in their lives, and so on and so forth.
In a challenging time like this, I pray that you once again can trust. Not in humans or stuff, but in God. Let go of the desire to have control over our own life. Sometimes in this life we must be willing to surrender all and let God do his work for, in, and through us.
"The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him."
– Psalm 28:7
Love and prayers,
Sowing SeedMay 1, 2020
Anthony De Mello wrote this story:
A woman dreamt she walked into a brand new shop in the marketplace and, to her surprise, found God behind the counter.
"What do you sell here?" she asked.
"Everything your heart desires," said God
Hardly daring to believe what she was hearing, the woman decided to ask for the best things a human being could wish for. "I want peace of mind and love and happiness and wisdom and freedom from fear," she said. Then as an afterthought, she added, "Not just for me. For everyone on earth."
God smiled. "I think you've got me wrong, my dear," He said. "We don't sell fruits here. Only seeds."
If the story of De Mello is true, is that why we rarely get the peace of mind, love, happiness, wisdom, or freedom from fear that we want? Because like a regular seed, it takes work, in fact a lot of work, before we get to enjoy its fruit.
During this quarantine time, I have been spending many hours in my back and front yard, weeding, fixing my tree house, trimming trees, and of course planting. I've always wanted a lemon tree in my backyard as I have found out that lemons have so many health benefits. Two years ago, I bought a lemon tree in a pot from Home Depot and then transplanted it into the ground. But for whatever reasons the tree never got big. I am not sure what happened. I did exactly what my friend told me to do to transplant the lemon tree, but instead of me enjoying the fruit of my labor, I was stuck looking at a tiny little lemon tree that refused to grow up for two years. After reading a long gardening article that caused my head to spin. I deduced that perhaps the problem of this tree was lack of sunshine. So, I decided to once again transplant this little tree to the front yard with the hope that this time, I was going to harvest lemon fruits by the next year or two. In the meantime, I've got to make sure that this little lemon tree stays alive and likes its new home.
Yup, sowing and planting seeds is a tedious task and not only that, the waiting period can be unbearable. It is simply because we cannot see what's going on inside the dark soil and the plant cannot tell us whether they need more water or they have been attacked by the bug. All we can do is to do our best to care for the plant and wait. Therefore, the spirituality of the sower, then, is the spirituality of urgent patience. A good farmer is willing to be patient because they believe that their effort will be worthwhile! They know their sowing will lead them into harvest. And when the harvest comes, they will be able to feed their families and sell the produce to the market for profit. That's why the farmer keeps sowing and planting even though these activities taxe their energy and sometimes their soul. Sowing takes a long, long time. And for those who sow must know the risk that they may not be able to see the result of their work because of unexpected disasters like parasites, bugs, or bad weather that might kill the plant before its harvest. But they do it anyway because they know that a good thing is made possible through the work of their hands.
During these quarantine times, let us not be weary to keep sowing and planting seeds of love. I believe that our world needs it today more than ever. Yes, we can still sow love from our confined environments, maybe by reaching out to our friends via telephone or emails and letting them know how much you care for them and wish them well during this unprecedented time. You could deliver food to elderly friends who aren't able to drive around or write cards with an uplifting message to your neighbors. Do you know that sewing masks is sowing love too? Yes, hunkering down at a time like this is not an excuse to do nothing. It is more reason to sow seed, care for it and wait until the harvest comes.
"Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains."
– James 5:7
Happy sowing friends,
Love and prayers,
LongingApril 17, 2020
What would be the first thing you do once the shelter-in-place order is lifted up? Going to the Mall? Eating at your favorite restaurant? Worshiping at church? Hanging out with your friends? The list goes on. For me, it's clear, I need to make a visit to my barber. I need a haircut. Some of my friends let their wives buzz-cut their hair. Well, not me. If there's one thing I cannot let my wife do is give me a haircut (don't tell her that :)) So, I think I am going to let my hair grow all the way to my hip again then like when I was young.
Well, for the majority of us, who have been strapped at home for more than a month now, this whole situation may feel like a hardship. It felt that way to me at the beginning of the shelter-in-place order. I felt anxious, helpless and disgruntled by it even though when I come to think about it, I have not been totally chained down at home since I'm still able to go to church for essential stuff like preaching and running the food pantry, go to grocery stores, bike around the park, or spend fun times with my family. Yet, I couldn't help feeling restless about it.
Over time, from stories and the news that I read and hear, I am reminded by what Nick Vujicic, a Christian motivator who was born without limbs, said: "You can either be angry for what you don't have or be thankful for what you have." And I realized that I should be more grateful that my living circumstances are far better than some people. I cannot imagine being healthcare providers during this time; doctors and nurses who have to be at watch 24/7 taking care of patients and putting their lives at risk of infection from the virus. They don't really have the privilege to shelter-in-place themselves as they follow their calling.
Or think about those who got sick in the middle of this dire situation. Last week I got a phone call that a church friend had to be admitted to the E.R. for a serious abdominal pain. The cancer has spread throughout her stomach. And there I was holding the phone talking to her husband. "She's looking for you, Vincent. She said you would pray for her." The entire time I was hoping that I could drive to the hospital, hold her hands, and pray for her like before. But this time the whole situation doesn't permit me to do so. Not even her husband could be by her side at the hospital. When you go through pain, wouldn't it be great if you have someone you love who can be with you and accompany you through this tough journey.
Today, I have to bury another friend whom I have known for more than seventeen years. She died of old age after years of deteriorating health. I was glad that I could serve her communion right before the shelter-in-place order took place. When I found out that she was slipping away, I wished I could visit her one last time. At least I could say spend time with her to say goodbye or give her a last rite. But even a short visit was not permitted due to fear of the spread of the virus. It made me really sad.
It's great that I can still make a plan of what I am going to do or where I am going to go after all this is over, God willing. I don't know when, but I know that one day I will get my super haircut and look clean again. I know that this situation is only a temporary moment. I believe God works through the minds and the hands of doctors and scientists to find a cure for this terrible pandemic. In the meantime, my prayer goes for those who are sick, suffer and are alone around this time. Those in nursing homes, in the hospital rooms, in isolation, the poor and the homeless people who have no place to go. And for those who must continue to work because their work is essential. Those who put their lives at risk so that others can live: health care providers, farmers, factory workers, construction people, ….
And with the words of Apostle Paul, I pray for you: "Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm (stay healthy, stay safe, stay at home, and stay prayerful) in the Lord, dear friends!" (Philippians 4:1)
Love and prayers,
Looking Up to the HeavensApril 3, 2020
For the last couple of days, I've been wondering about the word exponential as the number of people get affected by the COVID-19 virus grows exponentially. Doctors and health experts have suggested that washing hands frequently, social distancing, and staying at home would help to curb the exponential spread of this nasty virus. They are certainly helpful physically, but how about mentally and spiritually? What can combat the exponential growth of our weariness of the shelter-in-place isolation or the anxiety that our hearts feel as we are facing this uncertainty?
One lesson I've learned from my church experience is that you cannot give people in despair easy answers. Any answer you try to give will sound wrong in their ears no matter how true it may be. When you say, "God has a plan for you." They might say: Is this God's plan? I don't like this kind of plan!!! Or when you quote Apostle Paul's words: Our suffering may lead us to glory, they may say: I don't need glory! I need a release from this pain! Friends, there are no easy answers when life comes apart at the seams.
But, let me share with you what Prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah 40:21-31, said to me this morning. According to the prophet Isaiah, the key to enduring terrible things that happen to us is to look up instead of about. Think about our normal days. How many times during the day do we take the time to look up to the sky? We spend most of our time interacting with what’s right in front of us, usually within arm’s reach. The majority of our interactions with the world like preparing meals, working on a computer, using a cell phone, or brushing our teeth require us only to use our below-horizon-visual-field. I wondered during this shelter-in-place time, if we may have spent more time in front of the TV or computer watching the news or Netflix.
Many experts have spoken about the benefit of looking up. In his fascinating book, The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History, a neuroscientist Fred Previc argues that our visual brains have two distinct systems. One is more specialized for the graspable interaction space of the lower visual field and another is specialized for the visual field above the horizon. This second visual system, specializing as it does in surveying “extrapersonal space,” the distant vistas above the horizon. Previc goes on to argue that this area of the brain is strongly activated during religious experiences, meditative activity, dreaming, and probably any kind of artistic or creative activity that encourages us to reach beyond the bounds of nearby time and space into the infinite and eternal. It’s no accident, according to Previc, that during meditative states, worship, or praying we often look up.
In the interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer in 2010, Stephen Hawking gave this piece of advice to his three children: “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.” And psychologists know this little secret of looking up. By this simple act of looking up, we will be in a better mood and it can evoke the creative energy from our brain. Colin Elard, an expert in Human Brains writes: "I could well imagine that when we look up, we’re also putting ourselves into contact with the lofty infinite, thinking big thoughts, and contemplating our place in the Universe." By looking up, literally we are reconnecting ourselves with the universe far bigger and beyond ourselves.
Prophet Isaiah's suggestion is right to the point: We should focus our minds and hearts on the power and promises of God instead of our worldly problems. Isaiah says: God sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. (Isaiah 40:24-25) And Isaiah strongly suggests these hopeless people: " Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?" and he urged us to meditate upon the wonders of creation. In a way, Isaiah was saying, “Think about it. The Spirit of the Living God, the same Spirit that breathed life into creation can breathe life into us when we are down and out. We need to put our little lives in a larger perspective instead of setting our gaze downward all the time, and lose sight of our eternal glory that God has already planned for us!"
Isaiah continues: "He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing." Literally, Isaiah is saying, “Look up!" The one who made the heavenly bodies is the same one who promises to deliver you. Is there anything too hard for the creator of all that is.” This is the God who is mighty in power and strength. This is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.
The result of looking up is real: "He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." (Isaiah 40:29-31) Notice: the end of the prophecy doesn't end with: you will be strong and comfortable so that you won't have to do anything. No! This prophecy talks about more wonderful work that you can do with the power of God. You will be able to walk, run, and fly! Your strength will be added NOT so that you can live comfortably without doing anything, no! But you will be able to tackle more things in life, even the life during this pandemic time.
Let me close with this funny story as the wise said it: "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones." (Proverbs 17:22)
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a camping trip. As they lay down for the night, Holmes said, "Watson, look up into the sky and tell me what you see."
Watson looked up and said, "I see millions and millions of stars."
Holmes asked, "And what does that tell you?"
Watson thoughtfully answered, "Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Theologically, it tells me that God is great and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it tells me that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you, Holmes?"
Holmes deduced, "Someone stole our tent!"
Certainly, it is not a good time to go camping. But let's spend more time looking at the sky, the heavens. Take the time to see life beyond our life, to observe the magnificent works of God. Observe it from our own backyard during this isolation time. Remind yourself that this too shall pass and trust that the Lord who has promised us strength and joy will carry us through this dark time into His bright future.
Love and prayers,
O How I Miss ItMarch 26, 2020
I wished I could stay at home longer and sleep in and wouldn't have to go to work in the morning.
O, how I hate rush hour traffic filled with foolish drivers.
I wished I would never ever have to stay in a checking line to pay for my groceries or to mail my package at a post office. O, how I hate long lines of antsy people.
I wished I wouldn't have to be at a social gathering that my wife arranged so that I don't have to do all those meaningless handshakes and wishy-washy words with some new people I meet. O, how I hate lip service just to show that I am a good human being.
I wished I wouldn't have to drive my kids to their basketball practice or to their any extracurricular activities and wait for hours for their practice to be over. O, how I hate passing my precious time.
It seems like God has a sense of humor.
"Here you go, all your wishes, I am making them all come true! You don't need to hate anymore. Abracadabra!!!" a la skillful magician, God has put a stop to all the sources of my complaints.
I don't have to get up in the morning, because my office is closed and I have to do all the work from home. I don't have to get up in the morning beating the traffic, because on the road there are barely any cars. I don't have to go to any social gatherings, because everybody is social-distancing everybody. I don't have to take my kids to school or any extracurricular activities because all their schooling is canceled and must be done from home.
Now, I have so much time in the world to do everything for myself; too much time that is needed to be killed. I never felt this way before. Time moves so slow. Time is not only crawling, it's snailing or maybe stopping altogether. I don't know anymore. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday... every day feels the same. I eat breakfast at 12 PM and eat my dinner at 10 PM.
Suddenly a thought came to mind: O now, how I miss traffic hours, long lines of people, my kids' basketball practices. Obviously, I simply don't know what I have until everything is taken away from me.
Lately, I spend hours weeding, shaping and poodle-ing the green bushes in my backyard; dusting and organizing my bookshelves, kitchen cabinets, and my kids' bedrooms; doing woodwork and cleaning around the house. Not only that I am spending a lot more time at home helping with my kids' homework, playing board games, exercising, and cooking with my family. Of course, I must also endure the occasional shouting and the yelling that happens between my kids when they have nothing else to do.
All this I do because: "I AM BORED!!! I WISHED…" No! Stop that thought, I said to myself. Be careful with what you wish for, the old adage says.
No, no, I don't wish any of that to go away. I don't dare to hate them no matter how bored I am. I don't want God with His sense of humor taking any of them away from me. I don't want to come back to Him later and say, "God...O how I miss having moments of weeding, organizing, woodworking, and be with my family." I have to admit when I was weeding I got to enjoy the fresh air outside and when I was organizing my bookshelves, I found some old letters from my friends hidden between pages of my books that brought back beautiful memories. When I was doing woodworking, I felt a sense of accomplishment that I could still use my hands to create something and when I helped my kids with their homework, I have become more aware of their lives outside our house.
When time is what I have so much in my hand now, I won't dare to spend every single moment of it with complaining or feeling sorry about life. This much time in hand is not to be killed but cherish, celebrate, and make the most out of it. What I need to do more is giving thanks to God that in the midst of this challenging time, He still gives me a chance to do things around the house, to rest, to be with my family, and the opportunity to think and to meditate, to pray and to give thanks. For everything I have is precious, no matter how mundane, how boring, and how painful it may be. Therefore I must accept them with gratitude because He will make everything beautiful in His time.
O, wait, have I told you that I miss you?
Love and prayers,
God, I'm AfraidMarch 12, 2020
God, I am afraid. I am afraid of the whole ups and downs of this world. It is uncertain. It is unpredictable. I have seen people dying in their old age. I've seen a seven-month-old baby who died because of a heart defect. There is no end of this human frailty and now, this virus pandemic is eating away the soul of so many of us. I cannot travel, schools are canceling their classes, churches are limiting their gatherings. Lots of people are afraid of losing our job. The economy is going downhill. The stock market is plummeting. We are hiding in our houses being suspicious of those who cough or sneeze. Please understand, God, we don't want to get sick nor do we want to spread our germs to others if we carry ones. We have to stock up food and toilet paper, hand sanitizer and cat litter, well...we have to continue living, right? All these things we do still don't eliminate my fear. So, let me be honest with you: I am afraid and I am not going to hide my feeling before You.
Yes, you said it over and over again in the Bible: "Do not fear! Do not be afraid!" But, do you know, God, that it is easier said than done? In Biology, I learned that fear is a human defense mechanism that will enable us to detect danger. Fear is useful to give us the direction of how we should behave in the midst of a threat. So, if a threat is on our left side, we can steer our way to the right or any other direction. It will help us to ensure our survival, right? After all, we just don't want to be cocky in the face of any danger, that's why we allow ourselves to be at fear and brace ourselves in case the virus pandemic takes a turn for the worst.
Still, your voice comes stronger than ever, "Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God." Isaiah 41:10. It makes me stop to think the depth of this proclamation you uttered through the prophet of old. "Do not fear...for I am your God!" It keeps ringing in my head. As if you are asking me now, "Who's in charge of your life?"
"Of course, it is you, God! You are in charge. You are the possessor of my life, the true source of all living things. I will say Amen to this beyond any shadow of a doubt!" I will answer you.
"Then, why have you made fear takes charge of you? Why do you let fear control you?"
"No. I am not allowing fear to take control of my life, God." I argue.
"But why do your heart rate and your blood pressure go up each time you're thinking about Coronavirus? Why do you keep playing the 'what if' games in your head? What if I run out of food? What if the virus gets me or my family member? Vincent, you're playing this game as if you will be able to fix the whole situation by playing it."
" Well, I cannot help it, God. My imagination goes wild when stuff like this happens."
"That's because you let fear be your boss. It's not what you fear, but what a life controlled by fear does to you. Do you know that you can destroy yourself faster by being afraid than the Coronavirus itself?"
"Yes, God. Does it mean I shouldn't be doing any precaution things?"
"Being prepared, yes! Being cautious, yes! Being afraid and lose your sanity, NO! Remember, I am your God. I hope it is still true for you."
"God, it is a hard lesson to swallow. It's easier to believe this statement when everything is alright. I found out it's harder to surrender to this statement when life is in chaos." I am afraid that I may lose my faith in the midst of this chaos.
"Have you seen the works of my hands? The sun, the moon, and the stars? Have you heard my glory being declared by the wave of the ocean deep and by the grandeur of the mountain top and how I made you from the dust? Have you heard the stories of how I brought my people out of the land of slavery and how I defeated their many enemies? Have you heard the stories of how my Son, Jesus Christ, healed the lepers and fed the five thousand? And look at this world, generations come and go, each with its sorrow and struggles, but have you ever heard that I left them alone to endure the craziness of life? Look at your own life and see for yourself how far I have taken you and count the many blessings you have received. Thus far I have led you, will I now let you go without My Spirit?"
In shame, I shake my head. "I am sorry that I doubt You, God. Sometimes to succumb in fear is the most natural thing a person like me can do than to remember all the wonderful things You have done to me. I certainly need to learn more about trusting You."
"Then, learn to believe and learn it fast. In the end, you have not many options, right? It's either your fear or Me who will be your God. You simply cannot serve two masters."
"I choose you, God!"
"Then listen to me one more time, listen carefully: " Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 41:10; 43:2)
Love and prayers,
StrengthMarch 6, 2020
In the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak, I have been watching the news closely of how this chaos has progressed. The latest is how people started to stock up some of the necessary basic items like dried food items such as rice or pasta, hand sanitizers, toilet paper, and water bottles. Lots of my friends keep sending emails and texts giving live updates about grocery stores that still have some of these items available for us to buy. They kept telling me, "A lot of grocery stores ran out of the basic items! You have to start buying now, that in case of an emergency, you will have enough for your family!" I am not trying to downplay the nastiness of this virus, but I feel like the media, especially social media, have blown it out of proportion. We get bombarded by the news, the images, and videos of the growing number of people affected by the virus, dying people, people lining up at grocery stores hoarding all kinds of basic items...yikes! Perhaps, this is what triggered this mass hysteria. To be honest, I try to keep my head up by not allowing myself to be drowned by fear and anxiety and try to observe the situation from a healthy mind.
Wednesday afternoon, as I was preparing the midweek service for our church, my wife called and said that Governor Gavin Newsom had declared a state of emergency and then she asked me, are you sure we don't want to start stocking up anything? Her comment got me thinking. I paused for a little bit and tried to come up with some reason why we should not be panicky. Nevertheless, the wall was eroding. I thought in my mind, what if it is true and we will get isolated because of the virus and I cannot get out for weeks to buy the food? In the end, it's not just about my life, but my family's. Scary thought. What if this..what if that… All of a sudden, I got converted into this whole hysteria.
After the service, I decided to stop by at Costco. It was 8 PM, and the whole Costco was quiet. Everything seemed normal, I saw stacks of clothing and electronic items being displayed by the entrance. In produce area: fruits, vegetables, bread… I didn't see anything irregular. As I walked in further, I found empty shelves of rice, pasta, toilet paper, frozen food stalls, water bottles. I started to panic, so it's for real? I have the money to buy but I can't buy anything because the stuff I was looking for is not available anymore. The worst kind of imagination came to mind: what if the apocalypse happens? The movie clips of walking dead came to mind, where every place on earth becomes desolate and we will be chased by the zombies… arrrgh! The apocalypse is here and now, I thought. What should I do? For the first time in my life, I felt like money has no value in the midst of this. No matter how much money you have, if there's nothing you can buy, your money means nothing. I ended my trip by buying some fruit items and some pasta boxes for my kids' school lunch.
My shopping mood for survival turned into a gloomy thought. On the way home, I wondered about this whole phenomenon. It is a scary world, really. All kinds of thoughts came to mind: how much should I be prepared before the whole situation gets worse? How much food should I buy for my family? Where should I take my family when the apocalypse happens? As I reflected later on, these thoughts came because fear finally took over my head. In the midst of this chaos, it's kind of hard to keep a level head. I am still not certain about what I should do next. All I know, as lots of people, said it already, is to keep washing my hands and don't touch my face, stay home when I am not feeling well and stay away from those who are sick, et cetera, et cetera. Perhaps the most important thing I can and should do is to rise above fear and angst of this whole situation because fear and angst can only beget more trouble than solution.
This morning, during my devotion, I was reminded of prophet Habakkuk (Habakuk 3:17-19):
I heard and my heart pounded,
my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
to come on the nation invading us.
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.
I pray that we and the whole world can go through this chaos with the strength of the Lord. For our life is in God's hand.
Love and prayers,
Open for ExaminationFebruary 27, 2020
Yesterday, right after I was done putting together the Ash Wednesday liturgy and hand out for our church congregants, I spent some time looking over them. I was looking for any typo or grammatical errors that I often do unconsciously. I read the liturgy and the handout slowly and carefully and found nothing. No error. I thought to myself, "I am getting better at English.." Since English is not my first language, I have developed a habit to ask someone to proofread any of my writings before it goes to the public. So, I asked Mark, my fellow pastor, to read my work. Jokingly, I said, "Mark, the more I read them, the more I cannot find any flaw in my works. Either I am perfect or I am blinded by my perfect ego. Maybe you will catch some errors there with your fresh eyes." He laughed. And sure enough, he found three errors in a short handout that I had put together.
As an artist too, I realized from many different experiences in the past, that I should never allow myself to be consumed completely without any time to break away from my art project, especially when I am working with a portrait painting. Numerous times when I got so excited and let myself get lost in the work, without any time to have a break and review my own work, I found that my portrait paintings were distorted, unbalanced, or out of proportion. Even many art masters would suggest you take plenty of time to break away from your project, so that you may gain fresh eyes to look and fix the errors you have made in the past.
I have learned from my mistakes. Therefore, for any project, before it is completely done, I always ask my family or my trustworthy friends to check my work to see if they find anything that's not right that is hidden in my own blindspot. Yes, I have a circle of trustworthy people, people who love me, who can give me honest feedback without crushing me altogether. My ego often times get too inflated to see deep within my own heart the mistakes or errors I have made.
The Lenten season invites us to examine ourselves, to seek within the depth of our beings anything that's not right before the eyes of God, acknowledge them, repent, and turn to the righteous path of the Divine. It is a time to break away from our ego, from our busy and mundane life, a time to reflect, and a time to tear down the huge walls that separate us from God. Yes, the invitation of Lent will mean nothing, if we are not willing to be open for this invitation: open to stop, open to be vulnerable, open for examination, and open to better our life.
Our prayers this Lent season: "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Psalm 139:23-24
Love and prayers,
OptionsFebruary 20, 2020
Since my trip last week, I can't stop thinking about my experience in India: my encounter with kind-hearted-simple people, enthusiastic children who come from the lowest social caste system who go to Connie's school to learn, and dedicated volunteers and teachers who are relentless in their effort in bringing top education to these kids... all the way as to be reminded of the dire level of poverty, chaotic traffic and air pollution in India that reminded me of what I had in my hometown in Indonesia.
If you ask me one thing I learned from what I observed there, I would say one word: "options". When I was there, Connie, the principal of the school in India, asked me to help paint two 9X8 feet backdrops for the school play. The school is going to have a festival in March and one of many fun things they will do is for the kids to perform a play. Connie gave me this task about a month before my trip to India. She told me the storyline of the play and she asked if I could come up with a heaven and a living room scene. I have done this backdrop project many times so I didn't give it too much thought. I did a rough sketch in my head and told myself that the rest was going to be easy peasy. I assumed that I would get all the materials from the school.
When I arrived in India and it was time for me to begin painting the backdrops, Connie handed me two pieces of big fabric. The first thing I did was to feel the texture of the fabric. I found out right away, that it was not the kind of fabric I always use when I am working on a backdrop here, back in the U.S. The fabric in my hand was so thin that I could see through what's behind the fabric (I was expecting a canvas-like fabric) and it looked a bit shiny. I felt that the fabric had some kind of coating (later I found out that the fabric had a starch coating). I knew right away that it was going to be a challenge to paint over this kind of fabric that doesn't really absorb paint.
Next, finding paints. Connie told me to go to this old-run-down art shelves in a storage room to find the kind of paints I wanted. I went there and couldn't find much. I found old tempera powder paints in all kinds of colors that have been mixed with sand and some glittery stuff and dried acrylic paints in used mineral water bottles. It was quite like working on a puzzle. I had to adjust and re-adjust the scenes I have imagined in my head to fit the kind of colors and material that I had. At the same time, I had to do some paint hacking so that I could work with these unusual art materials. In my mind at the time, I thought, "Boy, if I were in America, I could go to Michaels' or art stores and find all kinds of art supplies for this kind of project!" I had no heart to tell Connie that I want her to buy new acrylic paints because that's the kind of medium I am used to working with. In my mind, the kids in this school have to use these simple materials, since they simply have no option. So, who am I asking for a privilege to get what I wanted? Even though in the end, I had to ask Connie to buy me an acrylic yellow paint since I couldn't find any yellow from the few that they had. I wouldn't ask for this luxury if I didn't have to but how could I paint heaven if I don't have a yellow color in my palette?
Having an option for these poor kids is a luxury. Perhaps in so many cases, having an option is not even an option. I often think about it. First, being born from the lowest caste system in a society that teaches you to abide and live within your caste, you would feel like you're kind of stuck within fate. You won't even dare to dream about a life that's not your current life. Second, having to live in a slum area all your life where all kinds of access to better your life are limited or non-existent at all, how can you see that there's something better beyond your own miserable life? Even though you know that there's a better life, how could you even know how or where to begin?
I can see with clarity now that Connie's ministry with the school, among many other things, is to give these children an option. Wise people say: "We know only what we know." These children may not know that there is a better life outside this kind of life. Perhaps they only know the kind of life they are living now. By giving an education, Connie and her army of teachers are expanding the horizon of these kids. They are showing these kids that there is another way in living this life: you don't have to be poor, you don't have to be street cleaner like your ancestor if you don't choose to be that way, and you don't have to be stuck in the life that gives you no options. I am grateful that I am living in this land of the free because I have so many options and these options are not just utopia. I believe you would agree with me. These options are within our reach: from a simple art supply to what we can make this life to be. Here in the U.S., I am watching some of my high school students applying for more than three different colleges to go to after they graduate. What a stark contrast I am witnessing the life of my students here and Connie's students in India. Yes, we do have options and that's a blessing! Sometimes we do not know how fortunate we are with these options until we are faced with no more options.
Friends, if you think life is hard and filled with sorrow, but if you still have an opportunity to choose, consider that a blessing. When we are still able to choose what we are going to eat for dinner and when we are still able to ditch our family doctor and go to another doctor who is more competent, or when we're still able to make a choice of what we are going to do for our vacation, consider these things a blessing. Because not everybody has this privilege to choose within all the options available. Our prayer is that with this kind of awareness, may God use us to be the channel of His blessings to others.
Love and prayers,
Dream MakerFebruary 7, 2020
God says: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” Joel 2:28
This week I have the privilege to be in India for a week, in Varanasi, to be exact. One of the oldest cities in the world; a city full of people, rickshaws, motor bicycles, cars, and cows. This visit is not for vacation, but a manifestation of my promise to my friend, Connie, a global worker who works as an educator in a slum area in Varanasi. I have known Connie for many years now and have heard wonderful things about her works. So when she came to the U.S. last year, I said to her that I would like to come to be a firsthand eyewitness of this wonderful effort and perhaps help with whatever I can around the school.
Hearing a story is one thing, being part of the story is another. The stories I kept hearing about the school have become alive as soon as I stepped into the school. The school is located in a rather secluded place in a residential complex. From the busy main street, you have to walk about a half mile through a dusty-trashy-half-paved-alley to find the school. There is no big school name sign on the gate of this three-story building, so you won’t be able to tell right away that it’s a school. But you could probably guess by the noise of the kids chatters or happy laughter of the kids from the inside the building.
The ground level, an entry way to the education level in level two and three, is a parking garage that’s turned into a multi-function hall: from playground, hang out place during recess, to a dance practice hall. The building is old and run down with many 8 by 10 square foot rooms that would fit up to 20 kids and a teacher K-8 grades. There is a small library filled with Hindi and English books that just got reorganized by an American volunteer who’s staying in Varanasi for a year. In the end of the hallway of second floor, there is a seven by seven square foot room where Connie shares and office space with her vice principal. From the general look of it, I wouldn’t want to call it a school building. It breaks every building code in the U.S. from safety to cleanliness; not because it’s intentional, but more because of the cost of maintaining the upkeep of a building like this can cost a lot of money. And if you rely your financial support from the generous donation of many organizations and people, then you should direct the funding to the most important part, which is the education. Also, if the very idea of school is learning, you can certainly learn in any situation.
In the heart of this school, I witness the enthusiasm of these many kids who come every day to receive their education. They always show their smile when they pass me by and some would greet me: Good Morning, Sir! Some are more curious than others and try to engage in a conversation with a stranger like me, asking me where I came from and the kind of work I do with their broken English; it reminded me of my early days trying to speak English. Precious children, really. These are children who come from the neighboring slum area, children of lowest caste (class) parents: the Dalits who usually work as street cleaners or any jobs that no other class would do. I heard from one of the teachers that caste system in India is no longer applicable and discrimination based on class is illegal but somehow it is still ingrained in the culture of the society. So, you have to know your caste (class) and behave appropriately. If you were born from the lowest caste, then so be it! Therefore education is never a priority for children that come from this kind of family. You are expected to work, once you are of age, in the same kind of line of work your parents do. It’s truly heartbreaking watching these beautiful kids get stuck in their living condition simply because they have no choice.
From the story, I know that Connie joined this school when there were only eighteen children. Over the span of fifteen years, the school grew and now is serving 170 kids plus another 50 of their graduates who now study in grades 9-12 in other schools. She knew since she was in high school that she wanted to live and serve in a foreign country. She met her husband who happened to be an Indian at a church youth group. After five years of marriage they decided to move to India so that her husband could stay close to his family. There, Connie met a friend who already had this school for a year and decided to move away from the area. Her friend offered Connie if she would take over the school and Connie took the challenge right away.
The last several days I’ve been in Varanasi, I get a chance to talk more intensely with Connie about the history of the school, her personal life, her joy, struggle and dream for the school. Connie shared that all she wants with the school is to give her students a better future. In my own words, Connie is giving these kids an option in what it seems an optionless life. It’s not an easy task, for sure. First of all, you must convince their parents that education is important for their kids. We all know it, once we have a certain mindset and expectation, it is hard to change them let alone if you believe that you and your kids are destined to be in a certain path in life. Second, you have to change the mentality of the kids who came from uneducated parents. You must evoke the passion for learning, you must explain why studying is important. Who likes going to school? Even, I, myself, struggling with my own kids, trying to convince them how important it is to go to school. Third, as Connie shared it to me, she wished that she could have offered the high school classes (9-12 grades) altogether, because once they graduated from 8th grade, it’s somewhat hard to find a school which teaches children properly. Day after day, Connie and her teachers have to fight this battle of giving the underprivileged kids an option.
I call Connie and her team a dream maker. Having a dream may be the last thing in the list of these children. If you are a Dalit, you should not have a dream because you are just a tool to make the dream of people of higher caste come true. Here, every single day, I watch this thriving school planting the seed of dream in every child’s mind. By teaching English, these kids would know that before them lies a huge world than their own that they could travel in. By teaching math and science, they would learn that they could also land on the moon in a spaceship. By teaching them art and music, these kids would find out the world of fantasy and imagination and they would know that they can be whatever their hearts desire. With all these tools and knowledge, they will know how to dream and how to make their dream comes true.
Yes, these last several days in India has taught me so many lessons. I am, once again, reminded that I still live in a struggling world. It taught me to look beyond my own life, my own sorrow, my own frustration, my own struggle. A friend of mine said: if you think you live a miserable life, look around you and find that there are many people whose life is worse than yours. I am reminded that there are lots of people like Connie who’s trying to bring goodness into this broken world and it is a lonely journey, really. Sometimes they feel under-appreciated and often times forgotten. It reminds me that I have to make more intentional effort to pray for them. Lastly, it taught me that the task of being a dream maker is not only for people like Connie who felt God’s calling to fully immerse herself in this kind of vocation. It is our task too, wherever we are, in whatever capacity we are in. People with broken dreams or without a dream at all is everywhere. If we think we are living our dream or on the road in achieving our dream, then, why not give those people a lift with us so that they can also one day be a dream maker.
“You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”
– Matthew 5:14-16 (MSG)
Love and prayers,
AromaJanuary 23, 2020
When I was Sunday School age, I read the story of Noah in the Bible and found a very interesting passage in Genesis 8:20-21: "Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done." Long story short, the passage is telling us that after the flood, Noah made an altar, killed the sacrificial animal, and burnt it as an offering of giving thanks to God for preserving his and his family's lives. It occurred to me at that time that God must like the smell of barbecue meat so much that He would promise not to destroy human beings anymore.
One of my favorite Indonesian foods is Indonesian Chicken satay: pieces of white chicken meat mixed with sweet Indonesian soy and peanut sauce in skewers being burnt on a charcoal pit. You can imagine the magnificent aroma it brings I can certainly imagine God's anger being pacified by this kind of aroma. For sure, just the thought of this delicious dish would erase any disappointment and ill-feeling I may have in an instant (I am salivating as I'm thinking about the satay and writing this blog :)), imagine what the real aroma of Indonesian chicken satay could do to me :)
Aroma is a powerful thing. I love the salty-fishy-smell of the Pismo Beach ocean and the fresh-earthy smell of the Big Basin forest. The aroma of God's creation gives me the energy I need to tackle the challenge of the day. Even the aroma of my hometown in Indonesia whenever I am visiting there. The damp-smoky-smell that may gross most people out, it gives my heart a soft vibration evoking the many years of my childhood memories. It awakens a loving memory that has been buried in the depth of my mind. Aroma can also evoke the nostalgia of our beloved ones. My dad has been gone for more than eleven years, but I still remember vividly the smell of his body: a mixture of his unique odor, his favorite spice perfume, and the smoke of his cigarette. As a matter of fact, I still have some of his clothing that is wrapped in a plastic bag that still preserves his smell even though it is fading away as time goes.
The aroma of our loved ones will always have a special place in our hearts. It preserves all the goodness and the loving stories you have created with your loved ones which makes you fall in love all over again. It calls back the sweet memories of the distant past that may give you the courage to recreate those memories in the present moment. I can tell you with sharp accuracy the aroma of my two kids: my teenage daughter has this combination of Old Spice soap and the sweet-fruity lotion she's using; my eight-year-old son who still has this baby-ish smell that never fails to make me wish that he should always be this small. And of course the aroma of my wife. She has this...well, this one is not for public knowledge so, let me keep it for myself :) For sure, I will cherish these aromas as long as I live.
Now, I have a new way of seeing God's attraction to the pleasing aroma of the burnt offering. In the New Testament, Apostle Paul spoke about us as a living sacrifice: "I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God" (Romans 12:1). I can see God, like us who loves the aroma of our loved ones, is the God who loves our aroma because we are God's beloved. When God smells our aroma, perhaps it evokes God's very special place in his heart, remembering the very first time He created us from His own image, remembering all the time He cares for us even at the moment where He had to give all, even His only Son, for our salvation. He loves us so much. Our presence is a pleasing aroma in God's heart. That's for sure.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Apostle Paul also said that we also carry God's odor, His aroma, in us. Wow! I hope that makes you feel more loved by God. Therefore, we better keep that odor pure and pleasant for those around us. For we don't want to spread pungent-gross-devilish-B.O. that will cause others to get dizzy when they get near us, right?
"For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing" (2 Corinthians 2:15)
Love and prayers,
Our Little WorldJanuary 16, 2020
Lately, for the last several weeks after Christmas last year, I have been having this creative urge to build art boxes. It started out at the end of 2018 when I made a paper sculpture as a way of prayer to God for Vania, my wife, who was struggling with the many medications from her cancer treatment. For many reasons I didn't finish it and it had been put aside for almost a year. At the end of the holiday season, as I was looking for something to do, I came across this unfinished paper sculpture and pushed myself to complete this boxed paper sculpture. An art box, (I don't even know a proper term for it), is a used box for mochis container which I can use to make a diorama or miniature scenes from my imagination. In it, I have a scene of our bedroom where Vania is laying down. Next to her, there is Jesus who lifts his hand telling Vania to get up and be healed, and around Jesus there are my two kids and myself kneeling in prayer. I had so much fun finishing it and toward the end of it, I went the extra mile by adding LED lights that I arrange in the background so that the box with the sculpture in it can glow in the dark. When I was done, I thought to myself, it's not bad for the pilot project. Now, I can't stop doing it. I keep on imagining and creating more scenes for other used boxes that come in all kinds of sizes. I am creating my own little world, I said to my wife last time. Four boxes later I still manage to keep the creative juice to keep going with more.
If a human like me is having so much fun imagining and creating my little world, how much more fun God might have had when He was imagining, shaping, and creating our world. "It is good," God said when He was done creating the sun, the moon, and the stars, the hills and the sea with all the fun and crazy looking animals in them. And God called it: "very, very good" when He created humans, the "creme de la creme" of God's whole creation.
At the beginning of this year, we were bombarded by all kinds of terrible news like the flood in Jakarta, Indonesia because of improper management of the city officials, the massive fires in Australia due to climate change, and the turmoil between the US and Iran that may have threatened our world peace. I thought to myself, what have we done with the good world that God has created? Why we, humans, as God's the most treasured creation, have the tendency to ruin what is beautiful? Why can we that was created so so good embody the goodness of God by bringing goodness to God's world? Why do we have to destroy and trample over God's artwork by our greed, our ignorance, and our own ego-centric ambition? Sometimes, the bad and the ugliness of humans, including the bad and ugly of myself, cause me to be frustrated. There's gotta be something we can do to maintain this beautiful world God has given us.
I can only imagine the hurt that God must feel when He looks down into His little world that He loves so much and see that His creation is destroyed by us. As an artist, I can feel the pain when someone dislikes my work, let alone when someone takes my creation and smashes it on the ground. I would be devastated by that kind of treatment. Maybe it's time for us to really think about what it means to care for each other and to care for this beautiful world God made.
"The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant." (Isaiah 24:4-5)
Love and prayers,
(In case you are wondering how the art box I made looks like, here is a picture.)
OpponentJanuary 9, 2020
Varen, my 8-year-old son, loves to play basketball. He spends almost everyday playing basketball by himself in our backyard shooting hoops and practicing his defense moves. Usually, after about half an hour, he will call me, "Papi, can you play with me?" When I am not too busy, I will stop everything and spend a one-on-one basketball game with him. One day, I was busy doing something and I was not in the mood to play basketball in cold winter day, so I said to him, "Not today, Varen. I am swamped. Got so much to do!" Varen was disappointed. He made that frowning look on his face and sticking out his lips.
"You've done good already, just keep on practicing your moves for your next tournament!" I said.
"But it's not fun, Papi! I need somebody to go against me so that I can practice my defense."
"You can use imagination and imagine someone is blocking you and you try to escape from his blocking." I tried to come up with a reasonable excuse.
"No! I need a real person. It's not the same. You are big, Papi."
"Yup, I am three times bigger than you!" I smiled
"Yeah, exactly! I am small like (Frank) Mason (Varen named the shortest NBA player). And you are like Shaq (Shaquille O Neal). If I can beat you in the game, I can beat anybody in the tournament." Boy, I thought, this boy knows what it means to take a challenge and bettering himself by taking on a bigger challenge so that he can tackle any challenge with ease. With that kind of response, how could I say no to Varen? :) I stopped everything and played with him.
I realized something after that conversation with Varen. We need opponents! Not enemies, opponents! In sport, it is not much fun to play by ourselves. I think it applies to so many different aspects of life: at school, company, neighborhood, even in our microcosmos as a family. We need somebody to take up the role of an "opponent", a person who can offer a different-constructive-opinion, debate our thought process, and even a person who can challenge us to be a better person. The presence of opponents will make us understand our strengths and our weaknesses, it will give us more understanding about the world we live in, it will push us to be better because it challenges our status quo thinking that we are the best person already.
The sad thing is when we treat our opponents as our enemies who are trying to bring us down (I know that many opponents took an extreme side and chose to become our "enemies"), There are many occasions at a workplace or at home where we choose to shut our "opponents" off because they offer totally different opinions on some subject matters before we even give them a chance to be heard, which in return we make ourselves the "enemy" of our opponent. The reason is simply because we feel they are threatening our comfort and our intelligence.
In this brand new year, I think it is healthy to practice humility and listening all over again, in case we have forgotten how to do that due to our busy end of the year. I believe that we can always learn something valuable even from those who are completely standing on the opposite side of us. Perhaps they know something we don't. Perhaps they can offer a better solution to our problems. Perhaps they can move us to be on a better side of life.
One thing I love whenever I watch my son's tournament among many things is how the coaches from both teams require every basketball player to give a high five and say "good game" to everyone in their team and the other team. That shows good sportsmanship. In the end, it is just a game, rivalry doesn't have to last. There is something better than a rivalry and the game we play, which is life itself and the friendship we bring to it. Yes, it's not about how to crush each other for the sake of making points but how to build each other up for the better good.
"Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning"
– Proverbs 9:9
Love and prayers,