Seven Wednesdays

“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”

– Titus 2: 11-14 (NIV)

A very wise Mr. Bhaer told Jo March* to write about what she knew. As I’m no theologian, I’ll stick to what I know: strong women who’ve shaped who I am, waiting (oh, waiting) for God’s best, and how the meaning of Lent is evolving for me.

Wikipedia tells me that Lent is a 40-day period of penitential preparation symbolizing the 40 days Jesus Christ spent in the desert, praying, fasting and being tempted. What did the perfect, sinless Lamb have to be penitent for? Nothing, of course; but He did have a ministry to prepare for.

Preparation: sounds so much like Advent, doesn’t it? May I invite you to walk with me these coming 7 Wednesdays, and see where Lent takes us.

*from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

 

First Wednesday

“Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.”

– Titus 2:3-5

My grandmother married her Prince Charming, is the fairy tale I was raised on. The daughter of a Methodist pastor, she was, at the time my grandfather first laid eyes on her, already way into her late twenties. In those days, that was near-spinsterhood. But she caught his eye, anyway. He asked about her; somehow he found out that she had always dreamed of a tall man in a white suit. So he made sure that the first time she saw him, he was wearing a white suit. This was tropical Manila, mind you.

My grandfather was a tall man who had played college hoops. A mining engineer, he was the first progeny of his clan who would go to university. He was a self-made man. He always got what he wanted.

Can you see where this is going? My grandfather was the type of man who felt he didn’t need God. But he went and got himself baptized into my grandmother’s faith so that she would give him her heart.

I wish I could tell you that my grandmother lived happily ever after with her Prince Charming. I found out, long after she had passed away, when I was around the same age she married, that she didn’t. But she would have never said that she didn’t. My grandmother, as fiery and vocal as she was about what was right, demonstrated the kind of loyalty to my grandfather that demands that I follow that same loyalty.

That’s very hard to do for a storyteller who also happens to be a journalist. There is drama and a denouement begging to be told; there are details that need to be verified.

When I was looking for the thread that would weave my grandmother’s story into Lent, I stumbled upon a Filipino Lenten practice I hadn’t written about in the last series. It involves older women. The Pabasa ng Pasyon (directly translated: Reading of the Passion of Christ) is a Holy Week tradition where a group of chanters recite a narrative of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those I heard were more often mournful, to the point of wailing, rather than simply sombre. The chanters were older women – maybe because they supposedly had the time to do this, I don’t know. One year, a TV documentary about Holy Week in the Philippines featured some of these chanters. The ones interviewed said that the Pabasa ng Pasyon was fading away because their generation of chanters was dying out, and the younger generation had no interest in taking it up. Looking up the Pabasa ng Pasyon online, I came across several comments by the younger generation talking about how they were always shushed during the reading. Maybe that’s why they grew up to not be interested in it.

I remember balling melon flesh with my grandmother to make summer fruit salad, and how she patiently demonstrated a no-waste method of doing it. I remember her teaching me to pray against the temptation of drowsiness during family devotions – I think I was eight years old. I remember watching her instruct her caregiver how to draw her eyebrows (when I was 12, she had become partially paralyzed due to a stroke). I take these things she gave me and hope to pass them on to the next generation. You see, unlike the chanters of the Pabasa ng Pasyon, my grandmother taught and encouraged.

Have you thanked the older person who has taught you “what is good”? Who are you being called to mentor in like manner? The 40 days of Lent are said to symbolize Christ’s preparation for his ministry. Where do teaching, mentoring and encouraging fit into the ministry Christ is preparing you for?

Second Wednesday

“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”

– 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (NIV)

Last Friday I watched an Italian carpenter assemble the highly-structural, mast-inspired Veliero bookcase by the iconic designer Franco Albini. It was the launch of furniture brand Cassina’s new showroom in Singapore, and its regional representative shared that because the average age of the craftsmen in their factory is quite high, they are desperate for younger workers to teach. Sounds like last Wednesday’s reflection, doesn’t it?

My grandmother passed away a month before my 13th birthday. One of you asked if I had learned to cook our traditional dishes from her; sadly, she went too early to teach me that. But one of her dearest friends, who is my mom’s godmother, stepped in to fill that gap.

On the cusp of 35, Lola Sofie (the Filipino word “Lola” morphed from the Spanish word for grandmother, “Abuela”) has now been my grandmother longer than my biological one. She is the grandmother who saves all my articles, whether newspaper clippings or entire magazines, and shows them off on her coffee table. She is the grandmother who gives me books written by her favorite authors, from Amy Tan to Maeve Binchy, so that I can write beyond my self. She is the grandmother who taught me to bake bread: feeling with my fingers if the dough needed more flour, kneading with the edges of my palm, rolling it out thin enough for cinnamon rolls.

Having an overachieving mom and growing up in a girl-power environment, Lola Sofie is my counterpoint. She worked as the senior pastor’s secretary in my home church – she is fondly remembered and highly regarded by many of the church staff and long-standing members. But her work was not her world. I believe her primary focus then, as now, was serving her family (she does have biological grandchildren, and yet there is enough love for us who are not originally hers). Because of her, I am reminded that my world should not only be my work.

In his seminars on vocation, Gordon Smith (a former pastor of my home church – yes, Lola Sofie worked with him – and the author of Courage and Calling: Embracing Your God-given Potential) explains that the circumstances of “work” as we know it will never be ideal because sin entered the world. Nevertheless, work is still a noble thing; God worked, and He continues to work (during Lent, we particularly remember His wondrous work of salvation).

Age has slowed Lola Sofie down. During my last visit home, her daughter, auntie Joy, had become the bread maker, under her gentle supervision. I don’t know how she does it, auntie Joy said, just by touching the dough she can tell what I’m not doing enough of.

The Italian carpenter had plumb bobs to help him set the Veliero’s V-frame straight, but it was also with the feel of each hand-twist on the anchoring screws could he figure out whether the tension on the cables would hold the glass shelves right.

I wish the work that my hands could do, like painting a wall, baking coffee cake or decoupaging old furniture, was enough to live on. Instead I type stories with my hands (although my hands aren’t really at work here, are they?). What are your hands working on this season? Are they working to honor God’s work?

Third Wednesday

“…let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Hebrews 10:22-25 (NIV)

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NIV)

First, a word of thanks: So many of you had such lovely words about last Wednesday’s piece. Thank you – but it wasn’t me, it was God’s work, and it was Lola Sofie’s testimony.

And the truth is, I am only able to give through these stories what I was given: a reminder, a lesson, a word of encouragement maybe, or hopefully some comfort.

Last Friday night I was at a charming little Swedish bistro with F and SL, friends I made when I first joined the young adult class of Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) in Singapore. F is Singaporean, although Indonesian Chinese by heritage. SL is Australian via parents who emigrated from Hong Kong. We were comparing notes about feeling neither here nor there; homesick for a home we cannot even identify anymore[1]. How strange that we found a little bit of comfort in each other’s discomfort.

Then on Saturday morning, I had brunch at a pretty, French-inspired cafe with some female BSF leaders I had served with in the past three years. Over dainty cups of thick hot chocolate and catching up on what I was missing by not being in the class this year, we too shared words of encouragement with one another, especially on the challenges of serving[2].

God has a funny sense of irony, in that He blessed me with such wonderful girlfriends now, when I was so miserable being in an all-girls school throughout elementary and high school. I still hold to the idea that the movie Mean Girls has nothing on my alma mater. Even some of the teachers there were bullies. Although it wasn’t all that bad – it was there that I met the literature teacher who found in me the makings of a writer. I probably owe my livelihood to Miss B, because the other adults around me then never saw for me a life of words. And she didn’t just coax the writer out – somehow she knew there was a no-name ache that needed to work itself out in stories, in theater, and even in song. On her Facebook page recently, she wrote about singing her lesson plans and “…when I could feel my class wounded or in pain, I would sing for them too…”[3]. Comfort comes in many forms.

For Jesus in Gethsemane, comfort would have been His friends staying awake and keeping watch while He poured His heart out in prayer (Mark 14:34, Matthew 26:38). Even when He asked – even after He had asked and rebuked them a second time – they were incapable of giving Him the comfort He needed.

Often I do not know how to ask. I rely heavily, lazily, on the Comforter, who “intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26). And so when someone[4] intuits my need for comfort, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and the need to pay it forward.

At this moment I long to be home in Manila, to sit with a dear friend who just suffered a terrible loss, to put my arms around her and pray with her as she struggles to understand the whys of something only God can explain. I cannot even say I understand what she is going through, or know how much comfort she needs. Instead I pray from afar that God will send her and her husband an angel who will strengthen them, just as God sent His Son some momentary comfort (Luke 22:43).

How do you say thank you to those who have been called to comfort you? Are you being called to be a comfort to someone this season?

[1] an aside: we are all homesick for our eternal home
[2] another aside: Ladies, thank you so much for your fellowship, and thank you, L, for arranging!
[3] yet another aside: you see, Miss B, I am still noting down your quotable quotes!
[4] like Miss B

 

Fourth Wednesday

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.”

Ephesians 6:5-8

When I was 10 years old we had a domestic helper who did my math homework for me (I think her name was Julie. If I don’t remember correctly, let’s call her Julie anyway. She had a college degree, but like so many Filipina domestic helpers overseas, Julie’s job prospects weren’t good.). She was smart, so she was supposed to sort-of tutor me; what happened instead was Julie would answer my math homework, and I would copy down her answers in my notebook. I don’t know how I survived calculus, physics and structural design in college, being such a bad math student, since Julie was only with us for about two years. I guess that’s why I barely survived them.

We’ve had many more helpers after Julie left. Whenever one said goodbye – to get married, to find greener pastures, because she was being let go – it broke my heart a little. And I’m not being melodramatic; my brothers and I were raised to treat our helpers as if they were members of the family, we addressed them with the Filipino word for older sister “Ate”, we trusted them to take care of those we loved. I remember escaping to the maids’ room if I was upset, because whoever was there would know how to soothe me. Their leaving somehow felt like rejection or betrayal.

Ana is a domestic helper on my floor. She left her three sons in Pangasinan to work mainly as the nanny of her employer’s son. She wakes up before everyone else in the house to prepare breakfast – mother and son eat different foods, so Ana has to prepare two breakfasts (sometimes she’ll cook herself a different breakfast, too). Then she cleans the living and dining areas, which mother and son would have used until bedtime, and at the same time she puts in a load of laundry. When the son wakes up, Ana gets him ready for his morning activities, either taekwondo class, Chinese tutor or play date. Ana prepares two lunches, too, before she gets him ready for school. She walks him to school after lunch, then she walks back home to do more chores. She walks back to school to pick him up at dusk. Then she prepares two dinners, makes sure the son finishes his, and helps him get ready for bed.

Sometimes, if she’s cooked something she’s proud of for dinner, Ana will share a plate with me. When her employer travels for work, Ana will fork out her own money for the son’s extra or unforeseen expenses. She does her job because she is paid to do it, but she does the other things out of malasakit (something gets lost in translating this Filipino term to “good will” or “concern”).

Imagine a workplace where supervisors and subordinates cared for each other the way Ana cares for her charge. Imagine being the kind of employee whose resignation or retirement could cause the boss’s heart to break a little, the way Julie and our other helpers caused me. Is it as hard to grasp such a concept today as it was for Peter to allow Jesus to wash his feet (John 13:1-17)? Maybe that’s because we don’t work the way we are called to as in Ephesians 6:5-8. I thank God that in an industry as disingenuous as the one I work in, there are still sparks of wholehearted service, and they remind to me to be such a spark as well.

Can those around you see who you are serving in the way you do your work? Are you marrying or compartmentalizing your work with/from your ministry?

Fifth Wednesday

“I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers… I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.”

2 Timothy 1:3, 5 (NIV)

Shhh, I’m going to let you in on a secret. I used to dream about becoming a missionary wife.

And yet look how far from that I’ve come, with a job “a million girls* would kill for”: magazine editor in a glamorous, foreign city. When I come home late – brain drained from writing four articles we’re too resource- and time-pressed to commission out, simultaneously editing seven other articles and closing three advertorials – and there’s nothing but potato chips for dinner and no one to talk to, sometimes I think of that dream.

I blame (although blame isn’t really the right word) that dream on aunt Ginger and aunt Page. Neither is biologically related to me; Aunt Ginger and her husband served with the Summer Institute of Linguistics when they lived in Manila; aunt Page and her husband with The Navigators.

This is what I remember about aunt Ginger: her beautiful smile and the crazy-beautiful things she crafted with her hands, and her big hugs. I remember more things about aunt Page because they were around longer, and during my teen years. Aunt Page was like a fashion model; tall and skinny, with an amazing eye for clothes and interiors. Mom was crazy about her carrot cake.

I remember how cozy and welcoming their homes were, and how I wanted to make my future home like theirs. And I remember how they spoke of and to their children. It was, at a young age, something I knew I should be emulating. I wanted to be spoken of that way; I wanted to be spoken to that way. Speaking with them, I always felt validated. That one time in college when I had a breakdown, aunt Page was the only person I thought to run to. When I used to write my angst-filled fiction, aunt Page didn’t scold me for what was between the lines; instead she gave an honest critique that challenged how I end my stories. I connected this validation-thing with them being missionaries. And so I wanted to be a missionary wife.

So…how lost am I?

Today, Christ is more likely to rebuke me (Luke 18:15-17) for staring down the child kicking the back of my seat in church, than to commend me for sharing my faith with one, as Lois and Eunice did with Timothy.

Once upon a time, my children’s choir girls would race each other after Sunday school to give me a hug; random children would shout and wave “teacher Chiquit!” across the mall (yes, a mall – Shangri-la Plaza used to be our playground) long after children’s theater summer workshops had ended; Macoy and Migs, my two boys in the BSF school program, would hang back after class to share with me what they were up to in school. Notice how they were my kids. Now my friends laugh at how I visually, physically retract into my shell whenever a child comes within arm’s length. I am, apparently these days, the kind of person who is allergic to children (although when Cam, my prayer partner, asked over dessert if I thought I was ready for children, the honest answer surprised even me).

With Lent being a period of reflection, think about where you thought God wanted you to be, and where you are now. How did things pan out for you? How are you honoring the footprints of your role models?

*who’ve watched Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada (note the key words there – no wonder there’s such a disconnect!)

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Sixth Wednesday

“Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry…I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

1 Corinthians 7:1, 7-9 (NIV)

My grandmother would have loved it if I had become a missionary (although I think she would have loved anything I became). But she wasn’t around anymore to steer me towards that direction. Instead, my parents encouraged a career in architecture (joke’s on them, too, since I never really practiced).

Why didn’t I just become a missionary on my own? For one thing, I couldn’t do it singly. The most effective I am, whether at work or in ministry, is when I am surrounded by an amazing team; the times when I’m left to serve alone, I burn out and become a wreck. So it is with a truly humbled heart that I write about Anne, Shirley and Jean, who have served/are serving without a mate.

Anne is an American nurse and linguist whose life’s work has been translating the Bible into Amganad Ifugao, a tribal language in the northern region of the Philippines best known for the historic rice terraces. Shirley is a Canadian teacher and editor who was the publications manager who typeset and got the Amganad Ifugao New Testament printed. They joined the Philippine arm of the Summer Institute of Linguistics 45 years ago; today, Anne is still there working on the Old Testament translation.

Jean, who serves alongside them, once invited me to visit Anne’s job site up in the mountains of Bagabag. I would not have had the honor of hearing their histories if not for this trip. Jean never fails to teach me something new. From Jean, too, I learned how to pay it forward, to be ever-ready with a sincere word of encouragement, to truly love the children who are not ours and yet are given to us for a short while to care for.

Anne, Shirley and Jean have and continue to serve as “singles”.

At what age do you know that that is what you are called to live and serve as?

My favorite nun, Sr. Rosella (spc), once shared that she had one great love before she entered the convent. It was nearly 20 years ago when she shared that, but I vividly remember her eyes twinkling, even as she put a hand to her wimple. Anne’s eyes have that twinkle when she speaks about her work.

One of my best friends told me, when she asked me to be in her wedding party, that just before she met the man who would be her husband, she had settled with God that she was ready to go through life single. Their second child is my goddaughter.

I don’t know how to end this piece. These are topics that I wrestle with when I’m tired but my mind won’t shut down: how am I being a light in my sphere of influence?, should I even be in that sphere?, can I do what Anne, Shirley and Jean are doing?, can I do it singly?, can I even settle “single” with God?

Jean says that God puts such questions, and sometimes the dissatisfaction, in our hearts because He has something in store for us other than what we currently have, and He wants us to ask Him. What are the questions you are wrestling with? Have you brought them to Him?

Seventh Wednesday

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ.”

– Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV)

 

“Why do you sleep with a furrowed brow?,” she – this woman who had issued an embargo on anything I may write about her – once asked, smoothing my forehead with her thumb. It’s because I worry, mom. It’s hereditary, you know?

Well of course worrying is not hereditary. It’s not even right. And yet even when I smile and say I’m not worried about something, it evidences itself in a stomach churning with nervous acids, in a panicked impulse to shop (especially when I can’t afford to), in the two deep lines that etch themselves between my eyebrows as I sleep.

Even when there is no pressing reason to worry, nervous energy fuels me to chase after self-imposed deadlines, imagine that I can do something about things beyond my control, and be uncharacteristically snippy. That’s probably why I’m in publishing.

Today I am a knot of nerves waiting for my visitor’s visa to be issued. This, even after God has reminded me several times not to be anxious.

It started with aunt Ginger’s sweet reminder, in response to my Sixth Wednesday questions, that perhaps I am being taught to learn, as Paul, contentment in all circumstances. That week, my morning reading brought me to that Scripture, too. Then on Palm Sunday, the message from the pulpit was from the same Scripture. The guest preacher, Dr Greg Ogden, pointed out the difference between resignation (aka Christian fatalism) and relinquishment. Denying that I worry because worrying is equivalent to doubting God – that’s me resigning. So is pretending not to be so hopeful and emotionally invested in the things I have supposedly surrendered to Him, because I know that His idea of timing is different from mine, and that sometimes He says ‘no’.

What kind of convoluted heart feels that way about the Father who only wants to give His child the best (Matthew 7:9-11)?

If perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18), what happens when those you love are at the root of your fears? How do you swallow down the bile, or fight back the tears when you are told of a loved one’s cancer or another’s overwhelming financial situation? How do you not turn to the Father and ask ‘why’?

And so we are called to thanksgiving. Maybe this is what Mary Poppins meant about sugar.

I have so much to be thankful for. These Seven Wednesdays have been a celebration of the women I thank God for, as much as they have been me grappling with my questions. And it’s been amazing how these women and those who step in to fill their places have come again, through email, to touch my life. When worry threatens to clamp its claws on me, remembering these women as God’s hands lifts me up. When fear creeps in, thanking God for such gifts is not just distracting myself from it, but reminding me of His past, present and future faithfulness.

My grandmother married her Prince Charming, and while they did not live happily ever after, his deathbed conversion became a promise for a reunion in the ever after.

The aroma of fresh bread baking still fills Lola Sofie’s house. Her hands still check on the whether the dough is properly elastic, although she doesn’t do much of the handiwork. Now, her hands are often clasped in prayer.

My ex co-leaders in BSF are busy with their shepherding duties, but they do find time to drop me a note and share where they are on this journey of ministry vis-a-vis career, and of growing up. And from this sharing, I learn a different perspective to our similar journeys.

Because of Seven Wednesdays, I am in touch with Miss B again, and her words continue to inspire me to write.

I don’t know what happened to Julie, but everyday I have the chance to thank Ana for her kindness.

I feel closer to aunt Ginger an ocean away much more than when we lived in the same country; we email and she posts on Facebook, and she is always laughing heartily.

Anne and Jean write that they were encouraged by Sixth Wednesday, but truly, it is them who are an encouragement.

It is good to look back and give thanks. Try it this week – there’ll be time to stop and reflect, and when you are reflecting on the greatest gift (John 3:16), think about the other gifts you’ve been given, too.

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Thank you for sharing these Seven Wednesdays with me.

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Post Script
Happy Easter from Milan!