Fruitful Christian Living

I’ve been reading John 15:1-7, one of the passages that are often interpreted by prosperity preachers as skewed towards material prosperity, in that being connected to the vine makes us “fruitful”, as in productive. As in prosperous.

I read this again as part of lessons about prayer, but I had to stop and linger on verses 1 to 8. I asked myself something I hadn’t really thought to ask before–what does it mean to be “fruitful”? Additionally, why are some branches attached to the vine but aren’t fruitful? I realized that fruit-bearing is a natural function of being attached to a fruit-bearing tree or vine. The natural function is to bear fruit after its own self. A person can be connected to Christ and not act like he is a part of the vine, there’s no Christ-like temper or disposition, no desire for it even. Fruit-bearing Christians, to continue to be fruitful, have to undergo constant editing (pruning) too. One cannot claim to be a Christian and not have the evidence of love in their life.

We may evaluate a life not in an instance but as a whole journey, and understand that we may not be where we’d like to be at a certain point of our life, but a fruit-bearing Christian has the lifeblood of Christ stirring in their soul and the trajectory of this life is towards honoring Him. Many seasons may pass before we see the fruits of the tree we have connected our lives to, but God cannot be deceived. He knows when it’s time to remove unfruitful branches.

Am I a Christian that is defined by the desire to live my life with the kind of love Jesus modeled to us? Did I just write up a rulebook of do’s and dont’s and placate my troubled soul by obeying each of the rules to the letter? Do I love generously and selflessly just as Jesus had?

The Only Kind of Love Worth Having

I’ve been reading a lot of reports in the US from concern groups aiming to hold the church accountable for spiritual and other forms of abuse. It seems that (at least in the US), religious leaders are now being publicly called to account for how they’ve been treating the sheep. This is encouraging.

I grew up in church. I am very much familiar with the church dynamics that can quickly turn toxic and take over your life. My former church isn’t just involved in the preaching of prosperity gospel but also in spiritual abuse. For years, I tried to carefully make my way around the prosperity doctrine because I didn’t agree with it. At first I thought I can just “agree to disagree”, since I believed it’s not the totality of what the church preaches, anyway. But that can’t be farther from the truth. Prosperity is the meat and potatoes of our church’s preaching. Everything revolves around it. Pastors can hardly teach anything else other than this. It has informed and shaped every interaction people have with the church leaders. It has become a yoke that is not easy or light.

Spend a lot of time at church for your ministry. Spend a lot of time outside the church still on your ministry. Sow time, sow money otherwise you won’t be protected from coming financial crises. Give, give, give, or else do not expect to receive. It’s very transactional and it has reached a point where this isn’t respectful of our free will anymore. The implicit and explicit message that they’re trying to drill into us essentially takes away our free will.

There was much fear when we left church, and recognizing this made me even more resentful at one point. I really just wanted to be a good Christian. Their stewardship of my desire to serve and be faithful was terrible. When we left, I was afraid that I would not be happy again. That I would be lost and adrift forever.

Now I realize that this isn’t God’s design. People’s design will always be control-focused. The more control people have of you, the more of it they want. Now they don’t only tell you how to spend your holidays and with whom, they also tell you who to follow on Facebook, who to repost, who to chat and interact with. If you’ll let them, they will surely exercise so much control over your life. Completely forgetting the fact that God treats our free will as precious because the only kind of love worth having is that which is freely given, not guilted or scared out of you.

Fundamentalism is a trap. “We are legalists!” the pastor once declared on the pulpit, “and we’re proud of it!” They certainly are. But legalism, in a way, is a more insidious weapon against us because not only do you develop this attitude where you don’t recognize your need for grace anymore, you also begin to fancy yourself as holy enough. What a dangerous path to be on.

Will Filipino congregants also come to a realization that they don’t need to take spiritual abuse from their religious leaders? With the way we’re conditioned to actually take abuse and be thankful for it, I am highly doubtful. These leaders will be accountable to God for the liberties that they take with the sheep. For now I am focused on praying for and finding a new church where leaders aren’t abusive and exploitative.

You Are My Hiding Place

We are now coming out of a very dark episode in history. We’ve made it out of an actual pandemic. I am very cognizant of the fact that so many families are not fortunate enough to make it out of this pandemic complete. There’s so much loss and suffering to heal from.

This pandemic was like a long storm for my family. We sheltered in place until the we received our vaccines, and it was an experience like no other. In the relative safety of our homes, we weathered the storm and prayed for our jobs to hold out because it would be terrifying to lose our jobs in the middle of a pandemic, when people cannot go out and find new jobs even if they wanted to. The Philippines had one of the longest and strictest lockdown measures in the world. It really felt like we were isolated and in the dark.

Add to this the fact that spiritually, my husband and I also felt adrift out at sea. Before the pandemic broke out, we had decided to take a break from church, feeling eventually that we will end up leaving. There are many reasons for this, and it isn’t something that we take lightly. Our church seems to have forgotten what it means to be gracious, to take the commands of Jesus about taking care of the poor and disenfranchised seriously. It has become a cruel slave driver and we both felt less and less like we’re attending a church and more and more like we’re trapped in a cult. It’s such a sad thing to realize.

I’ve never been truly invested in the prosperity preaching of our church. It claims to be teaching the correct perspective on prosperity, but even then I had my doubts. I just did not confront them because they weren’t relevant to me yet at the time. I think that for a season, our church was the right place for us to be. That was a season of growth and a safe place for grief (I had just lost my mother). I found myself involved with a small group which eventually became like my family. However, I think that there really is something fundamentally wrong about prosperity preaching, and eventually it will catch up on you. It did eventually catch up on us.

How can a church which has been so financially blessed give so little to the efforts of alleviating the pain of the poor? How can we experience grace in a place that advocates a very transactional relationship with God? Why do pastors tell you to cut ties with former members who leave? Why is this church taking away so much of our time from family? If you seriously want to be involved, it translates to very little time left for family and yourself. There is so much guilt inserted in this dynamic, and so much fear of failure, estrangement, poverty. It’s a joyless kind of Christian life.

Eventually the joylessness became unbearable. We left, but not right away. We should have just left right away, I think. In the process of the “long goodbye” where we basically stopped going to church, we suffered a lot of spiritual damage. It was in this state that found ourselves suddenly in the middle of a global pandemic. Disconnected from the church and afraid of what’s happening in the world.

It’s a good thing that God is truly good and gracious, and not transactional at all like some preachers would leave you to believe. Our home became a safe cocoon where we took to Him all of our cares and worries. Sometimes when we are overwhelmed, too overwhelmed to even pray, He still came and comforted us. There was much that happened during the pandemic that quieted our hearts enough to know that even if our relationship with the church is in shambles right now, God never left us. He is with us, He will continue to be with us, and He will gently lead us back to where we need to be at the right time.

Spiritual abuse is a very dangerous thing. Many Christians suffer deep trauma inflicted by the church and end up turning away from the faith. Many Christians spend years healing from the wounds inflicted by their church, some even a lifetime. What saddens me most is that these people just want to be good Christians, and the people they meet and grow to trust in church end up exploiting them instead. Sure, they will find “biblical basis” for the exploitation, but it’s not the way of Jesus. It’s very far removed from the way of Jesus, in fact.

The best way to begin the recovery from spiritual abuse is by getting to know Jesus again. That’s where we’re at right now.

For the Love of a Cat

It’s been a tough week. Our 10-year-old cat needed an operation because of pyometra. Then after  being home for a day, we brought her to the vet again because she was having difficulties breathing. It turned out she had a lot of water in her lungs. She’s still being treated, and we’re still waiting a couple of days to repeat the xray and find out what the underlying cause of her pneumonia is. It’s tough, and it breaks my heart to see her suffering. I am terrified of the prospect of losing her, she is much beloved.

When our pet dog (a beautiful Japanese spitz named Alanis) died, many years ago, I was so traumatized and surprised by the pain I felt that I thought I would never love a dog again. It took a few years for me to allow myself to love another dog, but the death of Alanis really changed the way I viewed pet ownership. I came to terms with the fact that they live so much shorter than we do. When my husband and I decided to get a cat, our first pet together, I mentally fast-forwarded to the moment of the cat’s death, and reminded myself that if we will open our home to a pet, then we should open our hearts too. If we open our hearts, then we need to face the reality that pain is the price we pay for the privilege of loving. If I cannot reconcile myself with the reality of the possibility that our pets will die before we do, then I shouldn’t open my heart to love anything or anyone at all. We are all just passing through this world, after all. Our lives are richer for having opened our hearts to this delicate creature, and now we are in so much pain because she is also in pain.

Our well-meaning Christian friends comfort us by cheering us on, claiming healing for our cat, praying with us, declaring that since their own pet experienced miraculous healing, they know God will do it for us too. I truly appreciate that and I cannot imagine going through this time without those words. But I don’t have the heart to tell them that I believe our lives and the lives of everything around us isn’t ours. God isn’t a cosmic butler who is obligated to do things for me just because I want Him to. People die, pets too. It’s a fact of life, and as much as I want to “claim” the miracle, I know that God doesn’t always intervene. He does always provide His grace, and that’s all I can hang on to right now. I plead with Him humbly for the life of our beloved cat, with silent intensity, in the privacy of my heart.

I sometimes think about how Christians can be trapped into thinking that if they pray hard enough, God moves on their behalf in exactly the way that they want Him to move. Where is the humility in all this? There are Christians who will have you think that these things happen to you because you lack faith, or you didn’t pray hard enough, or you didn’t give enough tithes or offerings. I remember this well-meaning Christian church leader who had the audacity to tell me that I remained childless because I had the wrong desires in my heart, I prayed the wrong prayer, I had the wrong attitude about it, and that he will teach me how to properly pray so that I can get the results that I want. It reduced God to a formula, not a Person. The truth is, this is life. Life is filled with fluid circumstances that changes whether you’re ready or not. Faith must rise above circumstances.

I know that things can end up differently than we hoped, and I know that it could also end up in a miraculous answered prayer. No matter how it ends, I will trust in God.

The Mother I Had

I’ve avoided Mothers’ Day celebrations since my mom died in 2011. I hid out at home, mostly, just spending the day in prayer and in quiet, away from social media. I privately greet my family and friends who are mothers. Mostly I celebrated my mother’s memory in solitude, while others were celebrating, taking photos and posting them online. Not that I resent these things, I am truly happy for people who have something to celebrate on Mothers’ Day. However,  I remembered women like me who were both orphaned and childless, who had babies who died, who nursed these private pains while the world celebrated their mothers who were still physically with them.

To say that my mom had a tough childhood is quite the understatement. She had a horrific childhood. She married young (to a sweet, wonderful man) in part to escape that awful part of her life. She was eager to have children of her own that she can love and cherish and not break. She had no good role model when it came to parenting, but the older I get, the more I am amazed at how deliberate and thoughtful she was in the way that she raised us. Especially me, her only daughter. While she didn’t have good role models when it came to parenting, she opened herself completely to God, and let His Word shape her into the kind of mother she hoped to be.

As her only daughter, and one who had such a different personality from her, our relationship wasn’t always easy. In fact we butted horns quite frequently, and it strained our relationship for many years. She raised me to be my own person, though. Now that I have begun to get to know God through His Word, as she did when she was still alive, I realize that I recognize the principles behind many of her decisions and the words that she used to teach us, shape us. Instead of allowing the pain of her childhood to define her, she begun to understand her identity in Christ, and that defined her instead. That was the kind of parent she became–God-fearing, God-loving.

She is one of the very few people I know who was truly status-blind. She didn’t treat people differently just because they were richer or poorer. Even after we got out of the bad neighborhood where we grew up, even when God has prospered our family, my mom was never mata-pobre. She had a wider sense of the world, a better grasp of its temporary nature. Especially towards the end of her life, she had a quietness inside her that I struggled to comprehend.

She also taught me at an early age to think differently. She said I always asked questions about things that puzzled her. Questions about stereotypes on women and men (why women were expected to dress and act a certain way, for example). She let me read books at an early age that opened my mind to questions about the struggles of women. She showed by example that women can do anything they set their minds on, and that I didn’t need a man to complete me. When I became a young woman, she reminded me that I did not need “romance” to feel complete, and helped me re-evaluate my idea of a healthy relationship. She taught me to date a man whose world doesn’t revolve around me, who wasn’t intimidated of my intellect and personality, who was kind towards me. Despite all the guidance, I still made a few mistakes, but in the end I did marry a man who is the best fit for me, and she was such a loving mother-in-law to him.

When I got married, she never pressured me to give her a grandchild. She reminded me to take care of my health, but she never even suggested that my husband and I are incomplete without children. She just wanted us to be happy, and she saw that we were happy, and she never tried to cast a shadow on that. She never catered to that idea of a “complete”, traditional family, and I never had to defend myself to her when it came to that. She never hurt me with those kinds of questions or comments.

Many times in my life, when I am trying to figure out what to do and how to decide on things, I wish my mom’s still here to guide me. I rack my brain to try and remember her lessons, her words, and true enough I find her words to always be reliable because she’s guided by the Word. Despite the challenges and struggles of her life, I know that this is the kind of woman I want to be. She might not be successful in the world’s definition of success, but she ran the race and finished strong. That’s how I want to finish.

I still miss her so much. Perhaps I’ll always miss her, even when the grieving is done. My mother was a remarkable Christian woman. I am very much blessed to be her daughter.

A Soliloquy at the Crossroads

Shall I doubt you now
When You’ve taken me by the hand
Through the belly of the valley.
When at nights, amidst the shadows
You lulled me to peaceful sleep.

Shall I doubt you now
When You’ve fed me from your own hands
The best yield of the land
As abundant and generous
As the waters of your well.
Never running dry,
Always flowing, always full.

Shall I retrace my steps now,
When you’ve taken me through the fog
Carried me through violent storms
Borne by the strength of your love
Safe, secure, in the cup of your palm?

Shall I turn away now
When morning is breaking
As surely as it broke yesterday
And the days before that?

Shall I doubt your love now
When I’ve glimpsed your very heart
Laid bare at the cross?
A love, pure and simple.
A love, impossibly profound.

Shall I doubt you now
When at great cost you crowned me with life
And pieced together the garments
I’ve so carelessly cast aside
In the past.
All in the forgotten past.

Shall I waver? Shall I despair?
When I know, I know now more than ever
I am no lost stranger, alone in the world.
I am a beloved daughter, precious and unique
As I could only be to my Father.

Pao Alfonso

Times of Upheaval

We all go through times of upheaval. We all go through those weeks (months…years…) where several things in our life just simultaneously break down in a major way and it threatens the peace of our hearts.

I disconnected from the internet as much as I could these past few days so that I can find the peace and quiet I so badly needed during a trying time. I realize how one gets so comfortable in the constant  buzz of social media that you hardly realize how you’re rarely alone with your thoughts anymore, and I really needed to  be alone, to recharge through prayer and devotions.

I had some time to read through this journal I found in the library. It was the journal I kept from 2010-2011; the time when I had a miscarriage and my mom was in and out of the hospital, leading to the time when she passed away. That journal was so hard to read. I can’t imagine how we survived day to day, and I was in constant emotional anguish from seeing my mother suffer in her sickness. The entries I wrote were crying out in private pain.

During that time, I found no comfort in anything else except in holding on to the promises of God. It was like holding on to the last life vest while adrift at sea. It was a dark time for me, but it was also a time of great grace. I saw my relationship with my mom healed, I saw God’s supernatural provisions for our needs, I saw the inner strength renewed in me day by day. I saw my family survive the ordeal and continue to grow in love and maturity after my mother passed away. It was a dark time with a myriad of moments lit up by God’s love and grace. Like a dark sky lit up by countless stars. It carried us through, and I was never the same person afterwards.

This week, in one of my devotions, I meditated once more on Psalm 91. Back in high school we had speech classes. Our teacher was an elderly lady who made a great impression on me. She made us memorize Psalm 91, and though I thought it was a beautiful Psalm, I appreciated it more when she told us why it was her favorite.

She said that when she was a very young girl, she and her family lived through the Japanese-American war. Being a family of some means, they lived on a private island. Despite that, she was so afraid whenever war planes flew overhead. They would try to find shelter as bombs were dropped all around them. Her mother taught her Psalm 91 so that she would say that to herself and cling to the promises, despite the terrifying reality of what was going on around her.

I’m so fortunate to not have to live through any wars. The trauma must have been great. It must have been a while before she stopped hearing the sounds of the planes and the bombs in her mind. I could imagine a frightened young girl who had no other recourse than to hold on to God’s promises.

There will always be dark times in life. Such is the human condition. There will always be times of upheaval, but somehow we always come out of it in one piece. There’s always something left in order to build something new with. Something left so that we’re not completely swept away. These are my favorite verses in the chapter:

If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
and you make the Most High your dwelling,
no harm will overtake you,
no disaster will come near your tent. Psalm 91:9-10

I love this passage because it’s a wonderful promise that whatever damage happens in my life, I won’t be completely razed to the ground. There’s always hope to rebuild because I will not be completely and utterly overtaken or defeated by the circumstances of life. If you look at the word “disaster”, it’s such a common word that the intensity of it is all but lost over time. The word is actually from the Latin dis which means “without” and astrum which means “star”.

Because of the hope afforded by our faith in a God who cares for us and loves us, we don’t live in a starless void. We’re not lost at sea, hopeless and directionless. Look in God’s word, reconnect with Him and see how He will help you find your true north again.

Daylight is coming, hang in there.

The Long Wait

We used to live in a flood-prone area, and when I was in fifth grade, we went to school in an even more flood-prone area along Pasong Tamo Extension. Oftentimes the roads are not passable during heavy rainfall, and my youngest brother and I would get stuck in school for hours. The first time this happened, my eldest brother got so worried that maybe my father won’t be able to pick us up because of the floods and rain, he dutifully braved the storm and began to walk all the way through the flooded streets from our place to our school. It’s a good thing my parents found him on the road while they were stuck in traffic.

Meanwhile, my youngest brother and I waited in school. The wait seemed like forever, and the dark sky and heavy rains made the wait feel even longer. It felt like nobody was coming for us. Of course, my father always came to pick us up no matter how long it took. This happened several times during rainy season, and each time my father would always come to fetch us. Eventually we learned to just wait for him because despite the long wait and no matter how late it is, my father never failed to show up.

Today I was reading through Psalm 13 in my devotions. It’s a Psalm by David, something that I used to have a hard time understanding. A lot of the Psalms attributed to King David sounded a lot like complaining. This short Psalm is one of them. How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? Oh my goodness, did he really write that? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? I used to wonder how words like these found their way in the Bible. I think now I understand them better.

David, a man after God’s own heart, did not enjoy a life that is always at the peak of everything. There are moments when he spent a long time in valleys, dark and seemingly endless. During those times, he was honest with God about his feelings. Apparently, David understood that God knows how we feel anyway, so we don’t need to act like we’re perpetually popping mood-altering drugs when we talk to Him in prayer. We can’t hide anything from Him, so there’s no point pretending. There’s no use for the fake rah-rah-rah attitude when we really feel shaken inside.

That being said, we can be honest with him about that sense of desperation in our hearts when the wait seems so interminably long. We can tell him that we feel ashamed of our failures. We can tell him that we feel alone and abandoned, and we can utter the most plaintive cries for help. Look on me and answer, O Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death. We can tell him that we feel like there’s only deafening silence when we really need to feel that we’re not going through the valley alone.

Even Jesus showed appropriate emotions when confronted with the pain of the human condition. He wept when Lazarus died, He felt compassion for the sick and weary, He stopped to give comfort and offer forgiveness to the outcasts and the social rejects because He felt compassion for them…He even felt like the Father turned His back on Him at the cross. God created us with a range of human emotions, and it’s unnatural to deny that we feel these emotions during trying times.

However, David still recognized the fact that despite everything that is happening to his life, God is still his salvation and there will come a time for rejoicing. It’s not a question of if but when. Sometimes my head knows that all things work together for good, but I still act like I want everything to be good right here and now. It’s unreasonable to go through this life and expect to not participate in it, good and bad experiences alike.

In times when our faith is challenged by circumstances, remember all of the many, many times that God came through for you. No matter how long the wait, He has never abandoned us and He never will.

Quick Thought: On Being Still

These past few days, my readings in the Word were about prayer. Today I meditated specifically on this verse, which many people know and call to their minds when they are in dire need. “Be still and know that I am God…” It’s an imperative statement that often makes it in our pleadings during times of distress. I’ve uttered this verse myself so many times in my life.

Tonight I learned that the Latin imperative form for the phrase “be still” is vacate, as in the root word for vacation. Cease striving, take a rest, have a vacation from all this worrying and fruitless labor and know that God is God. After all, as Jesus said, who among us by worrying can add a single moment in our life?

More interesting is the Hebrew word for the phrase “be still”, which is raphah (raw-faw’). P6235340This means to sink, to relax, to cease, to let go, to become helpless. The Bible reminds us of our need to be completely dependent on God who is able. It reminds us that we must remember how helpless we are, and that we must vacate the position of God in our lives, so that He can take over and show us who He really is, because who He is…it’s incredibly awesome.

I read in C.S. Lewis’ book “The Problem of Pain” that some people regard God as a pilot would regard a parachute–it’s good to have it around, but we always hope that we don’t need to use it. Often, prayer is the last recourse and only something we remember to do when all our efforts have failed and we’ve made a bigger mess than we can claw our way out of.

Let this be an encouragement to you today that God invites us to let go, and let Him work in your life. Trust that if you let Him do His work, He will not mess it up. Perhaps you don’t have the same end in mind, perhaps things won’t work out exactly the way that we plan it to work out, but if there’s anything I learned from all the things He took me through, it’s that He can be trusted. I can let go because of that, and so can you.