The Message of the Manger

We received a pastry gift and a lovely brochure from Marriott Hotel given by a neighbor who works there as a chef. The brochure, both the paper and photos, speaks of classy elegance and opulence. It offers different packages for a stress-free as well as sumptuous Christmas Eve spread (noche buena). One package includes a 3-kg roast US prime beef and a selection of sides that makes my mouth water as I write about it. (By the way, the package I mentioned costs P10,000 ~ roughly $200+). The brochure also offers special accommodations for families during the holidays, especially on New Year’s Eve. They have prepared a place where guests join in the countdown for the coming year. It is an invitation to those who love the posh life.

manger

The posh life. Is it for those who love and follow Christ?

I know that if I were physically able to travel this Christmas season, I wouldn’t choose to celebrate Jesus’ birth in Marriott Hotel. It’s not that I don’t like plush hotels. (If our family were given a gift certificate to stay a night in one for free, we would receive it with gratitude and would probably avail of it). But it’s that, it’s not a priority and my eyes are on my humble Savior who chose to be born in a stable. There was no room for them at the inn, remember? Or at Marriott Hotel for that matter. Or Solaire. Or Shangri-la.

Why would Jesus’ birth story include the turning away of Joseph and the very pregnant Mary by the inn? Why was it so important to mention it? The story must be that the main characters would end up in the lowliest accommodation available. And that is where the King of kings and Lord of lords, the God-Incarnate, would be born. Was it another illustration of John 1: 10-11?

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Does this turning Him away still play on the stage of our lives Christmas after Christmas? Do we still fail to know Him and receive Him as other things occupy our hearts and minds?

The angel who came down from heaven to announce the Savior’s birth appeared not before the highest authorities (VIPs) in the land, but to unknown shepherds doing the night shift.

Is this the message of the manger: that God is not inviting us to a worldly-wealthy life but to kingdom life where His righteousness reigns? That He wants to divert our focus from the world, where materialism and covetousness are gods, to Him – His life, His ways, and His promise of a kingdom that never ends?

We read in 2 Cor. 8:9:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.

Did He become poor in order to lavish us worldly wealth so that we would live in luxury, superfluity, and vanity? He Himself said:

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? (Mark 8:36)

In The Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12: 13-21), the Lord tells the fate of a rich man “who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” He warns us: “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.”

For God, material and financial wealth alone are not the true riches.

Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked— I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. (Rev. 3:17-18)

He calls the worldly rich wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.

So, why did He choose to become poor so that through His poverty, we might become rich? What kind of rich?

He said in John 10:10:

… I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.

Life and life abundantly. Abundant in righteousness, love, joy, peace, faith, hope, and all other enduring riches that flow from His everlasting kingdom. It’s the tri-fold blessing mentioned in 3 John 1:2:

Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.

Material, physical, and spiritual prosperity. But material prosperity and the great desire for it (it then becomes covetousness) should not consume us. It should not reign supreme in our lives. It should not serve as a stumbling block on our path as we walk towards God’s kingdom. Apostle Paul commands the rich not to trust in their wealth but in the living God (1 Tim. 6:17). And the Lord reminds us to not let “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, [so that] it becomes unfruitful.” (Mark 4:19).

As we celebrate the birth of our Savior, may His powerful love draw us nearer to Him, gathering us as His cherished children around the Christmas table with songs of praise and thanksgiving, of joy and peace, and of awe and adoration to Him. May we talk about His wonders, goodness, and faithfulness and all the other things we anticipate He will still do in our lives.

May He bring home the prodigals, humbly bending their knees before Him. May He cover those who are homeless, those who wander in the streets and parks and beneath bridges, with His love and protection and bring them comfort, deliverance, and salvation.

May He heal all that are sick and raise them up from their sick beds and that they will come to know Him and His salvation and live life abundantly.

May He fill our hearts and homes with His light and peace and joy and love overflowing this Christmas and beyond! May He answer all our fervent prayers and make our future so bright!

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Journey with Jesus,

Stay with Jesus

What makes you sad? I know there can be many things that make us sad (laughs), but that kind of sad like when we were kids and we got sick we needed to stay home for days, unable to play with our friends. We might have looked out the window of our room and watched them play exuberantly. Then we turned away from it, sighing deeply, sadness mirrored in our eyes. It is one thing to be sick, and an entirely different thing to be unable to do the things we’d love to do and go to places we’d love to see.

Stay_wth_Jesus

For many years now, I have been unable to travel, near or far. Before I became ill in 2003, I loved to travel, here and abroad. On holidays, I always had a travel plan set in place. I loved vacationing with family, road tripping, and staying in hotels and resorts. Around the third quarter of 2003, I planned a Christmas holiday in Australia with Hannah and Felix. Around this time, I had been planning to reconcile with my husband after more than 2 years of separation. I thought that going away and spending time together with our daughter would make the reconciliation more meaningful and memorable and last a lifetime. But in October of that year, I fell seriously ill.

While I spent months in bed, sick and uncertain of my future, being unable to travel was farthest from my mind. I only wanted to make things right with God, receive my healing, and go back to my work.

But healing and recovery haven’t come fully until now. And my career was gone 12 years ago. For years, I had to struggle to make peace with that fact. But one thing is certain: I found my life in the Lord Jesus Christ. I identified with the apostle Paul’s words:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…  that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Phil. 3:8-11 ESV, italics mine).

I found myself in Jesus, and through the years, I have come to know Him and walk with Him intimately. I have learned a whole mountain of lessons that will last me for eternity. I learned to be content and at peace in Him. For many years as I waited for healing, my life revolved around my Savior (praise and worship, prayers, the Word, witnessing to loved ones, Church, crusades) and my home and family. Though I was sick and weak, the Lord supplied me with enduring peace and joy. I was grateful for even the smallest blessings.

Then, social media entered my life. Through it, the world opened up to me again and I saw what other people in the planet did and I was reminded of my old life (the trips and holidays part). My peace was shaken and the wall of contentment which I built around me cracked as I began to desire things outside of my little world. Deep desires that were hard to overcome found a place in my heart and since then, I had to struggle against comparison and envy. Longing for things other than God – a European tour, a US tour, trip to Disneyland for the kids, holidays at the beach – began to grow within me. And while I gave time and space for these thoughts and dreams to play in my mind, the deeper the claws of longing dug. By God’s immense blessings, we have the financial means, but my frail health hinders any plans of family travel (except for my husband’s business trips every now and then).

It was as if I was that child down with the flu once again and looking out the window, feeling sad that I couldn’t play outside with my friends.

So I looked for ways to banish the desires and dreams (for the more I dwelt in them, the more I became sad and dissatisfied). I only mention them in my prayers as attached to my supplication for healing. But I know that they are not hidden from God no matter how I try to suppress them. My heart and soul are ever open to Him.

I often think that if we lived on top of a mountain where there were no Joneses, cell sites, and wifi, I would be happy and contended with what I have and with what I can do no matter how meager they are. That’s the funny thing (or maybe a painful reality!).

When we have someone to compare with, life is altered. Something shifts within us (and it’s not always for the better).

And now that Christmas season is here once again, I know that neighbors, friends (on social media who are the only ones I see), Church brethren, families of our kids’ classmates, will be moving from one place to another as they spend the holidays somewhere else. Like birds migrating, this “ritual” of people with means and health can’t be stopped. For myself, I can curb the craving and absorb the sadness of not being able to leave home, by God’s grace. But the kids. I would love for them to have a meaningful Christmas and memorable holidays.

That’s why I’m focusing my eyes on the Lord Jesus steadfastly: The King of kings who chose to enter the world through the womb of a simple virgin, in a manger inside a cold and damp barn in a little town, and be wrapped in swaddling cloth. His very first visitors were poor, unknown shepherds, but nevertheless, they were invited by an angel and guided by a bright, shining star.

Except for a brief story when He was 12 years old, nothing more is recorded of Jesus’ growing up years. But we learn that He became a carpenter, a humble occupation. There are no recorded family vacations, whether grand or modest. And when He at last showed Himself to the world at age 30, He “went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (Mat. 9:35). He went about His Father’s business, doing only what mattered eternally.

As this post was forming in my heart, I was drawn to Matthew 11:29, this time, seeing it in a different light:

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Mat. 11:29)

The Lord wants us to learn of Him (that has been the silent message of His humble birth!). He’s been trying to drive home to this materialistic, selfish world that He is meek and lowly in heart – no foolish pride, arrogance, or superfluity. It is only when we have learned of Him – to be meek and lowly in heart ourselves – that we can find rest for our souls!

This Christmas season, whether we are able or unable to go places, may we remember to behold Jesus’ life and example of simplicity, of doing the Father’s will, and living for the Kingdom. This will extinguish all comparison trap, envy, and discontent.

Like a horse wearing blinders so that it will only follow the path where its master leads, may we look unto Jesus and not to the world. 

May we experience to the full what the shepherds experienced that night, listening to the angel’s good tidings of great joy and following the star to our Savior.

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Journey with Jesus,

Nearer, My God, to Thee

Many Filipino homes, even the humble ones, start decorating for Christmas as early as September. Like the heavily-decorated Christmas tree, the house, both inside and outside, will soon be smothered with decor in all shapes, sizes, and colors, too. Prettily-wrapped gifts will start accumulating under the Christmas tree. I’ve seen photos of mountains of Christmas gifts taking up most of the living room. Most Filipino families, whether they can afford it or not, like to lavish their children with gifts on Christmas. It is during this season that purses seem to have no bottom, “shop ’til you drop” becomes the byword, and malls run over with droves of shoppers.

Savior's_birth

These Christmas traditions the world knows so well. Our young family is part of this, too. It’s not only the world around our children which has influenced their affections toward a materialistic Christmas. I admit, we as parents have brought about that, too. I sigh now as I see how difficult it will be to change that.

Why do people want to start Christmas early? Is it because they are so hungry for the Messiah they can hardly wait to celebrate His birthday? Or do they want to lengthen the season just to hold onto the magic of merrymaking? For there’s a certain thrill that the Christmas season brings, we can’t deny that. When I was a child, whenever I heard our Ray Conniff Christmas album being played, I would be enveloped with indescribable excitement and happiness. I knew then that it was Christmas. I could feel it. I could inhale it. I could even taste it! Such are the joys Christmas brings to children. And I know, adults would want to capture that, too.

That’s why they want to put up the Christmas tree early.

So, do we pursue the Savior or the magic? If we are honest enough, most of us have set up the pedestal of Christmas tradition higher than the Lord Jesus Himself. For He is there, cradled in a lowly manger. And we miss Him. And His will.

Nowadays, I often wonder: What does the Lord think of our Christmasing? Of the lavish Christmas tree sparkling with expensive ornaments? Of the Christmas table laden with feast fit for a king? Or maybe the rich man’s table where Lazarus waited for crumbs?

I really want to know how the Messiah, who, via an angel, invited poor shepherds to His birth, sees our celebration of it.

I think He just wants us to know and receive His gift – how precious, how all-important it is:

 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:11, 14)

Maybe we should ask ourselves these questions: Does every ornament we hang on the tree, on the door, on the window, on the stairs railing, bring us closer to the manger? Is every gift we wrap a step closer to it? Does our Christmas draw us nearer to the God in the manger, the Immanuel?

Does our Christmas still have Christ in it? The very front and center, meaning, and reason of it? Or have we X-ed Him, not only on the banners we hang but on the banners of our hearts? (No, not because we don’t like Him in it, but because we have lost Him in the thick of the hustle and bustle of a hectic Christmas. What with all the decorating, planning, baking and cooking, parties, shopping expeditions, and travels we do). Is Christ, pure and simple, at the heart of our Christmas? Would we still feel full even if we hadn’t completed the decoration; hadn’t baked all the breads, pies, and cookies we had planned; hadn’t bought and received all the gifts we wanted; hadn’t traveled?

The question really is: Is Jesus ever enough for us? On Christmas and beyond?

The truth is, He is really more than enough.

If we are true Christ-followers, He is always in our hearts no matter the season. In fact, he dwells there. He is not only the reason for the season, he is the reason for life itself! Every plan, every step, every endeavor, every trial must be a step nearer to God. Then, Christmas for us is not only in December (or September, October, November), but every single day of the year!

Friends, may our Christmas find us gathered around the manger where our Savior is. May we behold His glory and never get tired to give thanks for His gift: the gift of salvation. May we always remember the perfectness, the beauty of His gifts: great joy, peace, goodwill [an attitude of kindness or friendliness; benevolence; a good relationship] to us all! That it is only through Him that we could find these exceedingly wonderful blessings and not through the things we possess and fuss about. Jesus is the gift.

So with this in mind, may all our activities bring us ever closer to Him, worshiping Him with all our beings through them.

Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31)

May the light of the Lord Jesus Christ shine ever brighter in our lives than all the Christmas lights and stars combined.

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Journey with Jesus,

Evergreen

If our family has to set up a Christmas tree, I want it to be a reminder of the Lord Jesus Christ, no more, no less. If we are honest enough, we do get excited in putting it up year after year, a family ritual that we look forward to. But I’ll bet most of us have not stopped to ask, “What is this really for? What does it tell about the Savior who is coming to the world?” We just know that the Christmas tree is an important icon in the celebration of the birth of Christ passed down to us from generation to generation. I won’t go further than that although I know it would stir up debates if we dig deeper as to its origins, whether it speaks purely of Christianity or tainted with pagan practice.

evergreen

The first Christmas tree, which finds its origins in Germany in the 16th century, was a real, evergreen tree. It could be pine, spruce, or fir decorated with flickering candles. According to history.com, it was Martin Luther, a German friar who began the Protestant Reformation, who first added lighted candles wired around the branches of an evergreen tree erected in their family’s living room.

We know that most Christian homes in North America have the advantage of erecting a freshly-cut evergreen Christmas tree. They can find them from near their homes or buy from Christmas tree farms which, I believe, can be found everywhere.

But not so in the tropical Philippines. Two years ago when I first had these questions about the Christmas tree, I determined that if we had to set it up (again!), it must be a real evergreen. But that was impossible. I didn’t know of any Christmas tree farm anywhere in the Philippines (although this year, I resolve to research on it). Last year, since we were scheduled to buy a new tree, I requested my husband to choose specifically a  faux spruce tree. I thought that was the nearest we could get to the original.

So, we had our “spruce” tree, so tall it reached the ceiling (for me, that wasn’t necessary), and some pine cones. I preferred it to stay that way: evergreen with some pine cones here and there, period. And maybe a string of tiny lights in the color of the twinkling stars in the heavens above wired around it to light it up at night. But the kids wouldn’t hear of it. Before I knew it, they had hauled the boxes of balls, beads, and other Christmas ornaments and began to adorn the tree. “Poor tree!” I thought as the green needles disappeared under a decade’s worth of accumulated ornaments. My heart felt burdened like the heavily-decorated tree.

Don’t we do that to ourselves, too? Carrying unnecessary loads that encumber our faith walk? I myself am still learning to not live in superfluity.

We come to the heart of the matter. Two Christmases ago, I saw the meaning of the evergreen tree we set up faithfully year after year. It was a private interpretation for me and a reason to keep the tradition. Like the evergreens which stay the same though seasons change, so does the Lord God Almighty. He stays the same. He never changes.

For I am the Lord, I change not… (Mal. 3:6)

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Heb. 13:8)

Jesus’ love is evergreen. I want to see the Christmas tree as a representation of it. And if only for this reason, I would acquiesce to setting it up when the season to celebrate the Savior’s birth comes around. May all our Christmases be all about the Lord Jesus Christ!

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Journey with Jesus,

Thoughts on the Season

The deciduous narra tree has started shedding its leaves, carpeting the ground with bright yellow foliage. Soon, by Christmas, not a single leaf would be left and the narra would be as bald and forlorn as a dead tree, its limbs stripped naked for all to see. The birds, especially the maya, which make their home under its thick canopy would fly somewhere else, too. But I know, year after year, that the narra tree would go back to its full verdancy when the season is over, its faithful Creator clothing it with a new coat of lush green leaves.

Thoughts on Christmas

Through the years as I watched the narra, I have marvelled at God’s infinite wisdom and creativity. If we observe and listen closely, He is telling a story everywhere. Everything in His creation, there’s a story. In the past years, I would watch the green leaves of the narra turn yellow then relinquish their hold on the branches and fall, undulating, to the ground, graciously yielding to their fate. And yet, this is not the end of the tree.

Everywhere we look, as long as we open our spirit eyes and ears, God is telling a story. A message. A whisper. Everyday and everywhere, we can know the nearness of our God. For He is Immanuel. God with us.

David had known this. He wrote a beautiful psalm about it:

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me. (Ps. 139:7-10)

In early September, my husband went to our Church’s fasting house in Pampanga to offer prayer and fasting that was long overdue. When he came back, he brought home a big Christmas star. Pampanga is known for its Christmas parol: star makers offer a plethora of colorful stars in all shapes, sizes, and designs that could be lit up, the hundreds of tiny lights meticulously arranged beneath the translucent material dancing to a certain tempo and pattern. It’s a delight to behold.

He intended to hang it in front of our house that very same day. A Christmas star in early September! “Please, Dy,” I implored. “It’s too early for that. It’s not…it’s not appropriate. Maybe late-November. Christmas is not really about that,” I said as I thought of the Filipino way of celebrating Christmas. They start as early as September, lavishly adorning their homes with Christmas decor inside and out. Thankfully, he heeded my advice.

I think it was two years ago when I first felt the stirrings in my spirit to analyze (or question inwardly) the essence of Christmas. I don’t know but it was as if I had begun to grow weary of the practices. What I mean is, I’m weary of the routine of setting up a Christmas tree and embellishing it with all kinds of sparkly decor until it can’t almost stand erect. Now that I’m 48 and have gone through many trials and have walked with the Savior closer and deeper than I had ever dreamed possible, I want to ask: Really, where is Jesus in all that? I understand the joy of little children decorating it all round as a family activity. That is because it’s an age-old tradition that families follow so diligently (and pass on to their children). And with much passion, I might add. But, I wanted to dig deeper into the meaning of what we do. (I will talk more about the Christmas tree and other Christmas traditions on next post).

There is no escaping one’s notice the stark simplicity of the life the Lord Jesus Christ lived when He walked on earth. He was marvellous with His teachings and miracles, but He was as simple as you could get in His way of life. Unless we choose not to see.

The King of kings and the Lord of lords, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, chose to be born in a cold, dingy barn that stank of animal refuse. He chose to be laid in a manger with itchy hay for cover, the cows lowing and the sheep bleating in the background. The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness and heaven is His throne. He could have chosen to be born in a gilded palace, on a bed made of the softest down and snuggled in the warmth of a flannel as delicate as an angel’s breath.

But He did not. What was He trying to teach us? It must be something of enormous importance. Yet, we tend to miss it year after year as we celebrate and relive His birth. We tend to celebrate Him in the halls of mansions whose marble floors shine like a mirror. But He isn’t there, is he? Unlike the magi, we miss Him. We miss Him because we look in all the wrong places. Maybe in malls as we shop ’til we drop, buying the latest Michael Kors offering?

We miss Him because we bury Him under tons of decor. But in the beginning, there was only the barn, the manger, and the star. And the Savior of the world wrapped in swaddling cloth.

If we would just follow His light just like the three wise men followed the star, it will bring us to Him.

 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. (John 1:4)

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:9 ESV)

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. (John 1:10 KJV)

What do I want to think about Christmas? I want to think of that night in the country, shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men. (Luke 2:14)

(For the above passages, see Luke 2).

Good tidings of great joy, on earth peace, goodwill toward men!

That is what I want to hold onto even after the tall Christmas tree and the boxes of decor have been stored away. That is what I want to wrap my hands and heart around not only on Christmas but every. single. day. thereafter. The world’s Christmas, with all its pomp and phosphorescence, will lose its magic as the season changes. That is the tragic part of a flimsy Christmas tradition. But I never want to lose the glory of the good tidings of great joy, the gifts of peace on earth and goodwill toward men – Jesus, the ultimate proof of God’s love to mankind! He came down from heaven to offer the gift of reconciliation, an everlasting covenant of peace, the salvation of souls. He is the greatest joy!

This is what will see us through long after the reverberations of the multitude of angels’ praise have faded and we go back to the daily grind.

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Journey with Jesus,