June 22, 2004

Out of step with God

During one graduation ceremony, one mother remarked while watching the processional of graduates marching with the cadets of the school's military training program, "those cadets are incompetent, they can't even march in step with my son." Of course, the mother could have been correct--that the cadets (all of them) were so incompetent that they could not even march in step with her son; but then, the mother could be also have been way, way off the mark--that it was her son who could not keep in step with the cadets.

Its often that way in our walk with God.

We are often out of step with God but we often fail to see this even as we insist that God has left us, deserted us, failed to keep in step with us. When we have our own plans, our own dreams, our own aspirations, our own hopes and our own missions, its difficult to walk in step with someone whom we know has the power and the authority to simply change all of these. We refuse to be in step with our God because, at the back of our mind and deep in our heart, we know that walking in step with God may cause these plans, aspirations, hopes and dreams to change--and we are often unprepared or unwilling to accept this.

Worst, we sometimes deliberately refuse to keep in step with God during our happiest moments. At the times of our greatest triumphs, God becomes an afterthought--a punctuation mark at the end of a primal scream of victory over adversity, rather than a chant of praise. When we are at our highest peak, we rush ahead of God--forgetting all that He has planned for us, forgetting His words, forgetting His works, forgetting Him who has allowed us to scale the peak and claim our victories.

So, we would rather say that God fails to keep in step with us; that He has deserted us whenever we are at our lowest; that He fails to answer our prayers when frustration overtakes us; that He is absent or sleeping when nothing in our life seems to work. And at the times of our greatest triumphs, we would rather go ahead of God, because everything in our life seems to fall in place at that moment and God becomes a millstone around our necks that weighs us down in our pursuit of our hopes, dreams, and aspirations. And then we fall. . . and then we go back to God failing to keep step with us, deserting us, leaving us and being absent in our lives.

Yet, the truth remains true that at no point is God closer to us, more intimate to us, more real to us, more one with us than when we are at the extremes of our lives--the lowest valleys and the highest peaks.

When fear, frustration, depression and despair walk us to the edge of hopelessness, there we find that God has been with us all this time; that He has even gone before us; that He is already there waiting to rein us in, hold us back from taking that irrevocable step towards hopelessness and keep us with Him in His love.

When giddiness, excitement, passion overwhelm our capacity to comprehend and submit to God's plan for us, we discover that God is with us all this time; that He continues to keep in step with us with gentle--and sometimes not so gentle--reminders to keep us in check and to keep us real. All because of His great love for us.

The paths to God's heart lie not in the straight roads but in the many crooked paths that lead ultimately to Him. And it is because of these many crooked paths that we are often petrified, hesitant, unwilling and even resistant to keep in step with Him. Yet, ultimately, fear and doubt must wither and fade in our hearts in the face of His constant reminder and exhortation, "It is I, do not fear. Come." His great love for us has been tested and shown to be true and is constantly being tested and being shown to be true in our every day lives. The faithfulness of our God is beyond question and His love beyond measure. Why then do we still hesitate, refuse, or simply not keep in step with our God in our walk to Heaven?

June 06, 2004

Overheating cars and a mechanic named Angel

Yesterday, my car overheated (is there such a word?) twice in a span of two hours. Considering its a 2001 model and its pretty well-maintained (meaning, all the regular check-ups and maintenance procedures recommended are followed), it came as a surprise to me. What made the situation particularly stressful, however, was that the first time it happened, I was on my way to Makati and I was on EDSA and the traffic was horrible; I felt so hopeless seeing the temperature gauge rise slowly to "H" and even go beyond it. All the while I was praying (and asking other brothers and sisters to intercede) that I would get to a gas station so I could put some water into the radiator.

When I finally got to a gas station somewhere in Wilson Street, it took almost forty minutes of continuous hosing down to cool the radiator down but there were no leaks (which was the first thing I checked). After finally ensuring that everything was ok, I proceeded to Makati with the temperature gauge acting "normally."

On the way back to QC from Makati, while along White plains road, I noticed that the temperature gauge was slowly again reaching H; I was praying hard that I would reach the nearest gas station which was in Santolan corner Boni Serrano before the car totally quit on us. Reaching the caltex gas station at Santolan, I thought it would be the same thing as at Wilson, just put water and go.

But when the gas attendant opened the hood, I noticed one thing that wasn't there the first time--at Wilson--the hose was leaking and steam was spewing from a hole in the side of the hose. I knew that the car was not going to make it to the FFM venue on time because the hose had to be replaced and since it was close to 6:30, some of the hardware stores nearby might be closed. Also because my car is a Honda, parts are difficult to get from just anywhere.

Two men approached us while the Caltex attendant was hosing down the radiator; the younger man told me that there was an auto supply shop along 15th street and that he could accompany me there on a trike. I didn't know what to think considering that I didn't know this man from Adam. Something in me, however, kept nagging me to trust them although I had no reason to, really since I didn't know them. Despite my best instincts, I did.

I took out P500 from my wallet (because I didn't know how much it would cost, though he told me it was about P250) and gave it to the younger man; I even remember asking him, "can I trust you? (on hindsight, that was such a stupid question; its like the 3 little pigs asking the big bad wolf, "do you want to eat us?") and his answer was, "yes, I'm from around here" (hindsight again, that was also such a noncomittal response--what can I say, I was listening to the inner voice that was telling me, "trust them."). So, off he went and I waited at the gas station with the older man.

With nothing better to do (and since I was resigned to being late for the FFM anyway), I prayed about my situation and was reading scripture in the car when the older man approached me and asked what I was doing; I told him, "nagbabasa po ng biblia." To which he replied, "maganda po yan" and typical of older persons, he started to launch into an insight-filled discussion (more a monologue) about a host of topics--the elections, religion, the INC, and my car and its problems (he had a really great analysis of why the car overheated; something I had not heard before--ever); I listened intently simply because I didn't have anything better to do. At the back of my mind, however, I was worrying about the other man--the one to whom I gave P500 to ("where is he?" "did he go directly to the sari sari store to buy his favorite poison?" bad of me, I know, but still the skeptic in me too over).

Finally, after about 15 minutes, the other man turned up in a trike. He had a brand new radiator hose which looked very similar to my busted hose; he told me that since my car is a Honda, parts are quite difficult to get but that the one he had would do. He then gave me the change and a receipt (it cost P200) and then whispered that he didn't have change for a trike, so he walked there and just got a trike back but that he didn't have money to pay the trike; of course, I forked over the P20 the trike driver asked.

The older man then took the hose and in less than 5 mins had it installed in my car--all the while explaining to me what he was doing, like a surgeon teaching an apprentice. The younger man was handing over tools to him, very much like an apprenctice. Very soon, my car was running and the temperature gauge was acting normally. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was just about 700 and that I could still make it in time.

Still I had unfinished business-- I took out some money from my wallet and handed it over to the older man; he looked at me strangely and, for a while, I thought that the amount was too small (P200). Then he told me, "hindi na po kailangan yan." I insisted, even as he repeated that it was not necessary. But I was determined to give it to them; finally, he accepted it with one last piece of advise: "pacheck mo yung thermostat mo; patanggal mo na lang yan, dahil wala naman tayong winter dito. Yan ang dahilan kung bakit nag-overheat ang kotse mo dahil hindi makaikot ang tubig sa radiator, nakukulong kung kaya't umiinit."

Not really paying any attention to his novel theory on overheating, I thanked him and was about to speed off when I thought of asking him what his name was. His reply was, "Angel po (pronounced the filipino way--"Anghel")."

I didn't know what to say to that.

Speeding off to the University Hotel for the Mass and prayer meeting, I was so profoundly shaken by God's goodness to me that I was playing "Shout to the Lord" at full blast and just praising the Lord. Not only did He rescue me from two desperate situations where my human powers were insufficient, He overcame my skeptical and human nature, and provided me with a concrete manifestation of His power, compassion and love--in the form of an old mechanic named Anghel. He showed me that, indeed, He is in control and that He will do everything for us--all we really need to do is just put our trust and hope in Him.

One day, I hope to catch Mang Anghel at that Caltex station at the corner of Santolan and Boni Serrano and perhaps indulge him in his novel theories about thermostat gauges, Honda cars, the lack of a winter in the Philippines or just simply thank Him for being God's angel to me in my time of need. In the meantime, as for me, I will praise the Lord.

April 06, 2004

Oh glorious wounds that saved a sinner like me! (A review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ)

[Introductory Note:] After hearing and reading so much about The Passion of The Christ, it almost became anti-climactic to watch it. Almost everything that can be said about it has already been said or written--from reviews, exhortations, critiques to jokes even and blooper reel transcripts. One could almost not be faulted for being unexcited about it or exhibiting an almost blaise attitude toward the film. Yet, I still WANTED to watch The Passion of The Christ. To a certain degree, I felt I NEEDED to watch it---not only because I'm a big Mel Gibson fan (which I am) but because I'm an even bigger Jesus fan.

The film is a courageous attempt at radical evangelization by one who seems the least likely to be a great evangelizer; and I felt that, as a Christian, I should support such a courageous--and in Hollywood terms, a foolhardy--attempt. That the film was deliberately chosen by Gibson to be previewed during lent demonstrates just how much he wanted to underscore the importance of this film as an evangelistic tool and perhaps a faith-reinforcing instrument. That he put down $25Million of his own money when no studio wanted to bankroll it, despite his proven track record at the box-office, shows just how relentless Gibson's resolve was to show the life of the One Man he obviously felt so strongly about. The accounts of the various incidents and challenges that beset the making of the film lent an almost palpable air of spiritual warfare to it; that the film still was made the way Gibson felt (perhaps I should say, discerned) it should be made and is now on every one's lips demonstrates just how an overriding faith can triumph over even the most tremendous challenges.

Oh Glorious Wounds that saved a sinner like me!

It is a strange feeling to enter the moviehouse knowing that you already know what's going to happen in the film you haven't watched yet. Its a warped sense of dejavu--what you already know hasn't happened yet but it soon will and you'll know that you know it when it does.

Entering the moviehouse to watch "The Passion of The Christ" created that sense in me--an almost funny, strange and disconcerting feeling; part of me was already anticipating what I would see--having read the accounts of Christ's passion, suffering and death in the four gospels--my mind was racing, anticipating what I would soon see.

But nothing prepared my mind, let alone my heart, for "The Passion of The Christ."

Far from being a senakulo or a simple passion play brought to very expensive celluloid life, "The Passion of The Christ" throbs with a vitality that could only have been vested by the Spirit. From the very first scene, when a black screen carried Isaiah 53:4-5, I knew this was no ordinary film and its message no ordinary one--even if oft-repeated and equally oft-disregarded. Indeed, the entire film reverberated with that theme---"it was our infirmities that He bore . . .pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins"--from the opening scene at Gethsemane to the last gasp of Christ on the cross, WE were at the center of The Passion of The Christ. It is not a film about the historical Christ; it is not a film about a man called Christ. It is a tale of OUR lives, for WE, as a people, and OUR SINS were at the center of the film. If not for US and OUR SINS, "The Passion of The Christ" would be an expensive tale of a tragic life; instead, because the film put US and OUR SINS at the center, it becomes a redemptive account of a life and a love that is beyond tragedy but that is also beyond measure.

Halfway through the film, you start asking yourself why.

Why did Christ have to be treated like a common criminal, mocked, disrespected, scourged and beaten to an inch of His life, made to carry a cross and crucified as a common criminal?

Why did not Christ simply tell the jews that "I'm sorry, I was mistaken. I'm not your messiah, so please stop the scourging?"

Why did Christ have to endure all this pain and suffering?

And even before you finish all these questions, the answer becomes obvious, but no less painful.

Why? Because of me. Christ bore all these for me.

That's when the enormity of Christ's sacrifice becomes even more real. After watching "The Passion of The Christ", I will NEVER EVER be able to read the narratives of Christ's passion in the same way.

Each blow, each lash, each horrible flesh-breaking thrust becomes etched in your mind; costly reminders that this is the cost of our freedom. This is why I am free today--free to worship Him, free to believe in Him, free to be with Him. Each and every drop of blood on Christ's face and body has my name (and yours as well) written on it.

That's when the enormity of Gibson's courage and faith kick in. And you also start to ask why.

Why did he spend $25 Million of his own money on a "bible story" (as hollywood executives dismissively called it), with no assurance that it would be returned in box-office revenue, let alone critical acceptance?

Why did he put on the line his professional reputation to make a movie about Christ's last 12 hours on earth?

Why? Because it had to be done.

Because Christ's passion, death and resurrection had to be demonstrated to a world grown numb to suffering, violence, and death.

Because the example of a life and a love given freely and unstintingly to people who cared not at all for such a life and a love was a balm for souls grown tired and weary from apathy and indifference.

Christify the workplace, we cry. Yes, indeed. But how?

Find it in our heart to tell the story of great Christ's love for us in whatever way we can and we will be able to Christfy the workplace. We are not all Mel Gibson and we cannot all make films like "The Passion of The Christ" but we are all God's people, drawn to Him by His great love for us, commissioned to spread the truth that needs to be told in these times--that there is a love that is greater than all the world, and it is the redemptive, miraculous, victorious love of our Lord.

Find it in our heart to tell of Christ's passion, death and resurrection in ways that are familiar to us--in loving service, in faith-filled teachings, in Spirit-inspired singing, in grateful worship, in lives led for the Lord who gives and IS the meaning of our lives--and we would have Christified the workplace.

Christify the workplace, we cry. Mel Gibson did that, in courageous fashion. He put his faith where his mouth should have been; he not only spoke about his faith in words but he spoke about it in images that will not soon, if at all, be forgotten. As Saint Francis of Assissi puts it, "proclaim the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary." Mel Gibson proclaimed the gospel, not only through words, but also through his work and also even his own life. It is safe to say that the Hollywood that rebuffed Gibson's "bible story" won't be the same again; as it is, they now talk excitedly about "The Passion of The Christ". People of every stripe and denomination discuss it on messageboards and online fora everywhere. Think about Sodom and Gomorrah stopping all their sin and talking about the gospel of truth and the gospel of life and you will realize just how radical the effect of "The Passion of The Christ" has been.

All because one man gave in to the grace to tell the story of another Man who was all grace.

God's grace is present throughout the movie. I spoke of Gibson's unforgettable images and these abound in the film: Mary wiping Christ's blood after his scourging with cloth given to her by Claudia, Pilate's wife; Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross and bearing Christ with it as well, are among them.

However, among the most unforgettable images of the film, for me, are the various pietas that inhabit it.

The first pieta is particularly heart-rending: Mary, the Mother of God, lying prone on the floor above the dungeon where Christ is chained, simply sharing a heartbeat with her son. No words are spoken; none are needed. This scene may not appear in scripture but in this one scene, Gibson demonstrates the depth of his faith and the clarity of his discernment--Christ may have been the son of God, but He was also Mary's son (and this is shown by a light moment shared between the young Jesus and Mary when He, the son of God, is told by his mother to wash his hands and shed that dirty apron before eating and whose carpentry work--an exceptionally high table--is shrugged off by His mother--"it will never catch on.") In this first pieta, Mary's love for her son shines true and through. You realize that Mary, driven by her faith in God, keeps all that is happening to her son in her heart, but she is also pained by what is happening to her son; yet she trusts in God and loves her son, even as she submits. despite the pain.

The second pieta is equally unforgettable: Mary, accompanied by Magdalene and John, rush ahead along the via crucis to where Christ will pass; as Christ falls, Mary rushes to Christ and almost pleads to Him, as she tells her son, "I am here for you. Let me die with you." As this scene unfolds, we are brought back to a time when Christ is a child and falls while walking; Mary drops everything and rushes to Jesus, cradling Him in her arms, soothing his pain with the balm of her voice and the warmth of her bosom--to be rewarded by a smile on the face of the child Jesus. The love that Mary has for Christ is that love that will make true that plea--"let me die with you." But on the via crucis, Mary's plea to the fallen Christ is not met by a smile this time but a guttural rasp, "See Mother, I make all things new." And even as Mary does not fully understand why this is happening, she once again submits, in love and in faith.

The last pieta is the most unforgettable: Mary, accompanied by Magdalene and John, carrying the broken, battered and dead body of The Christ in her arms. No words are spoken; none are needed. Mary's tears do not only stream down her cheek but her heart as well; Mary's heart,which has kept all the things that God has given and shown her,cries and the heavens cry with her. Mary grieves, not for her son and not for herself, but for us. And in this final, most familiar tableaux, the pieta of our Mother Mary, she claims back for herself,even if only fleetingly, HER son in the company of those He loved most and who loved Him back: the gentle John, whom He gave Mary to as mother and the sinner Magdalene, whom He saved from a certain and deserved death; in doing so, we are brought personally into the tableaux of Christ's death at the foot of the cross as the children to whom Christ gave Mary to as our mother and as the sinners whom Christ saved from a certain and deserved death.

The other most unforgettable image is that of Heaven crying--a single drop of rain falls from Heaven, unleashing the tempest that destroys the temple as Christ dies--a fitting metaphor for God's sorrow at the death of His son but also a powerful image of the liberation of mankind from sin. The almost poetic fall of that single rain drop--a tear from God's eyes--was not only a good cinematic touch but also a powerful way of showing the depths of sorrow for our sin and also of the great joy of the Father that His son remained faithful to Him till the end.

The last unforgettable image is that of the Resurrection--done simply through a rapidly emptying shroud, the face of our Savior and His pierced hands and a flash of blinding light. In a brief scene, lasting no more than five seconds, all the catechism of our childhood on the resurrection is made real and the impact of Christ's victory over death and sin is made tangible. No theatrics, no fireworks--just Christ rising from death, as God this time and no longer as man, having triumphed over death and sin through His own death and having brought us all life by the same token. That scene brought tears to my eyes if only because the promise of the empty tomb is what all of us Christians live for; and seeing it, even in cinematic terms, simply affirms my faith in the resurrection that we have all been promised beyond any degree of catechism or teaching.

Billy Graham is said to have remarked, after watching "The Passion of The Christ", that it is a lifetime of sermons in two hours. Indeed. For some, like me, its a lifetime of sermons and exhortations.

By all means, watch "The Passion of The Christ" but watch it with your heart also and not only with your mind for it is a film fuelled by faith, led by the spirit and driven by prayer, told in unforgettable images by a courageous soul and a loving heart. Watch "The Passion of The Christ" in faith and proclaim our Lord's passion, death and suffering in our lives henceforth as we die to ourselves this Holy Week so that we may live again in Christ on Easter.