Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What I Remember about My Childhood Christmas (The Simple Art and Science of Bamboo-Cannon-Making)

The chill of the air, the sound of children’s carols and chimes, the smell of native food and the blast of firecrackers bring me back to my childhood days. Well, almost, I don’t hear bamboo cannons anymore. No -- sadly, I don’t get to fire them anymore!

It was a rather tedious process. You first had to warm up the bamboo – oh, sorry, you first had to get a piece of bamboo about twice your height (which means about 5 to 6 feet since I was only 10 years old then) and smoothen its surface with a sharp knife or a bolo. You sawed off one side so that you had one closed node left and the rest of the nodes you punched out with a long steel bar to come up with, well, a hollowed cannon.

Near the closed end, you chopped off enough bamboo skin to form an oval depression (this was where you pressed your lips while blowing air into the cannon) and, at the center of it, you carved out a small hole using a bar of steel heated over a fire (we didn’t have a drill then, I guess). Once the hole was finished, it was best to reinforce the same end by tying around two pieces of wire on each side of the firing hole. Much of the pressure during the explosion would be at this end and the wire support assured you of a durable cannon.

Any straight bamboo type -- at least three inches in diameter -- will do for this project. Oftentimes, we made do with what our father brought home or what my older brothers were able to get in the neighbourhood. The strong and loud cannons were those of mature bamboo and of such species that were thicker and wider, the ones available in the provinces. (Today, the shorter, seemingly harmless ones made of welded aluminium cans or PVC pipes can rock a whole house. I heard they have been banned.) For our purposes, we just needed any bamboo that could create enough noise and fire tin cans twenty to thirty paces away. As kids, anything more powerful would have been dangerous. If we had two cannons, we fought against each other, firing cans back and forth until they became deformed. (Nobody got hurt as cans were so easy to dodge or catch.) With one cannon, we contented ourselves with making as loud an explosion as possible, with or without cans. The loudest it could go was less than that of a one-inch wide triangulo (triangle firecracker). But for us, the noise was merely the clapping after the whole performance. Seeing a can fly through the white ring-shaped smoke emitting from the cannon’s mouth and land across the vegetable patch was sheer triumphant joy. Projectile motion was a child’s delightful experience before it became a formidable Physics exam-problem in high school.

Oh, I almost forgot -- how did we fire the cannon?

After pouring a handful of kerosene (rubbing alcohol and gasoline were expensive; of course, the ancient Chinese, who must have taught us the use of cannons, used gunpowder) through the hole, you had to prop up the firing-end over a lighted candle or kerosene lamp to warm it up. A cold cannon will not fire since the kerosene needed to reach a certain temperature to produce enough heated vapor inside the cannon. To keep the cannon warm, it was best to keep glowing charcoal beneath the firing-end where the kerosene pooled. We made sure fire did not rise up from the coals and scorch the cannon. We lost a cannon once that way. (Wrapping the bamboo’s bottom with tin sheet prevented that.) Once it heated up, you positioned the cannon with its open-end raised and supported a bit higher than the firing- end. You fired the charge with a wicker made of a thin bamboo stick dipped in kerosene before being lighted.

At first, you heard a sudden rush of air coming from the closed end to the open end – like the sound of a car’s exhaust pipe when it back-fires but a much softer and soothing sound. I know what it is -- it’s like the bamboo singing a bass tone lower than any tuba player can make and more full in timbre. Whooofff! -- it went. And together with that sound was smoke spouting through the firing hole and the mouth. At night, you could even see the red flame from the blast. The explosion -- well, it was not yet a real explosion -- was a mere preview of the cannon’s power. One needed to prime up the cannon before it could really fire.

Priming required blowing rapidly several times through the small hole. (We often coughed and shed tears as we inhaled smoke and as our eyes smarted from the heated gas and from smoke.) I didn’t really know why then; but thinking about it now, I suppose it added oxygen and helped hasten the evaporation of the kerosene by spreading the heat and the gas all throughout the cannon’s length. The mixture of air and heated gas only needed to be ignited with fire to produce the explosion. Only after a few sets of blowing and firing did we get a sudden combustion loud enough to startle our mother and sisters who were cooking dinner. (Beware of overheated gas, it can ignite spontaneously. It might be best to wear goggles to protect your eyes.) By that time though, the sound would have been a bit muffled, as a tin can was often loaded just inside the tip of the mouth. A really deafening blast could split the whole cannon and that would be the end of the fun. Well, not really for we made a bonfire and barbecued with the silenced cannon.

It was a crude child’s toy but one that needed a whole brotherhood (four of us boys) working on it to become a success. Of course, our father taught us how to do it at first but after a while, it was us alone playing. Sometimes, it was just me and one or two of my sisters making and firing the cannon. Big boys move on to bigger toys.

Today, most kids will not have that rare satisfaction (and education) of making their own toys. Toys are bought mostly these days. Back then, we made our toys from all kinds of scraps or plants. Papaya-leaf flutes, bamboo swords and bow-and-arrow, banana-leaf airplanes, carton boats, tin-can trolleys and old-newspaper-and-coconut-stick kites.

Recounting this crude technology of kids wanting to have fun is a memory come-alive. It is childhood living in the heart and the mind. It is an undying memory that can only come at that time when the conditions are right – the cold month, the festive season, the familiar faces and places, the magical ambience and the refreshed feeling of being fully alive and of knowing God meant to bless us with life and joy at any age.

(Warning: Do not do this inside the house. And kids should not play with this toy without adult supervision. Suggested age of kids who could play: 10 to 92. Price: Inexpensive (or the price of a taxi ride to the nearest mall). Benefits: A Merry Christmas!)

[Photo above: Taken from (, photo shows a Samoan firing a bamboo cannon. It seems this toy is an Asia-Pacific phenomenon. Watch boys in Fiji Island cheering each big blast by clicking the link below.]

(Bamboo Cannons on YouTube)

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Law: Its Origin and Essential Meaning (How We Can Build a Strong Christian Nation)

The first time humans encountered the concept of law, as the Bible reveals, was in Eden. “Thou shall not eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.” This command, for that was what it was, had the effect of establishing in human consciousness five basic things: (a) there is a lawgiver, (b) there is a law handed down, (c) there is a law-recipient, (d) there is a corresponding response to the law (i.e., there is a law-keeper or a law-breaker) and (e) based on the previous, there is a corresponding response from the lawgiver (there is a reward or punishment).

God is the source of law and order. He set all the laws of Nature and the whole Universe even before He taught humans how to deal with Him and with one another. The Law of Reproduction (although an optional choice for capable persons, unlike the Law of Gravity which applies to all things) is an example of natural law that humans likewise learned to comprehend as they practiced and celebrated their sexuality in the beginning. Today, with birth control and homosexuality issues, we have come a long way from that time when humans clearly understood and simply followed this natural law. But it did not take long for humans to find clever ways to violate or go around this law. Case in point: Sodom and Gomorrah -- homosexuality supplants this natural law to the detriment of the parties involved as well as society itself. Today, however, we may not see the brimstone fire; but it burns with fervent heat, ready to claim its prize. (Please don’t shoot the messenger; the law is there and that is why we are here.)

After the Fall, the first humans had to deal with contingent laws or, or more precisely, forced conditions as a result of disobedience to the first command. Whereas initially Adam and Eve simply had to pick fruits from trees and derive all they needed to maintain perpetual health, they ended up working the land and toiling day-in and day-out just to remain alive, only to die eventually. The Law of Death (“On the day you eat of the fruit, you will die”) contained in the first law and which arose from the first sin was indeed a most grievous result from human failure to keep the Law.

Keeping the law, it seems, is a herculean task every person is bound to undertake as long as he or she lives. As children, we got rudimentary training in recognizing law and order in what we considered an uncomplicated life. We knew the effects of being good (Santa smiling with a gift) and being bad (Mama frowning with a belt). How we were taught to appreciate parental authority helped us to appreciate the authority of society and the State. How we valued our training and how we kept fidelity in our duties as law-abiding citizens determined likewise our value as a person and as a member of a community. Hence, we were or are either a burden or a blessing to this world depending on how we behaved or behave in relation to human laws.

As a result also of sin (violation of Divine Law), humans became subject to complete corruption. Why? When our first parents were driven from Paradise, they lost their intimate relationship with their Creator and Lawgiver. Spiritually and physically, humans had become slaves (to sin) and violators (sentenced to die). Whereas they walked and talked to God face-to-face in the Garden, outside, they no longer had that privilege other than through the indirect process of prayer or, eventually under Mosaic Law, through the intercession of God’s anointed ministers. Whereas they ate labor-free and life-renewing fruits, they now had to eat herbs and crops they had to plant, care for and even process (cook, grind, bake or ferment – culinary arts is such a fine but expensive spice in our otherwise somber life of earthly suffering) in order to eat. From then on, sin abounded and has not let up. And as a result, the law’s coverage also increased geometrically with every person born, family set up, city established and nation established.

From only one law in the Garden to more than six hundred in the Mosaic Law to thousands that we now have (and still growing), humans have to deal with laws, laws and more laws. (And we pride ourselves of having progressed in time!) And not only that, each law has its peculiar interpretations, nuances or applications, depending on the circumstances that prevail. For instance, complex marital laws are applied (both by civil government and the Big Church) to settle domestic differences. Sometimes, it takes years before these cases are resolved -- proving how we have avoided or missed the simple spiritual law Christ came to establish: Love One Another. And we are not even talking about criminal laws which likewise fall (or so they should) under the same encompassing influence of the Golden Rule. We have somehow forgotten the original Lawgiver, the essence of Law, our duty toward the Lawgiver and have taken for granted the consequences of our response to authority. Hence, we no longer recognize even those supposedly appointed to maintain law and order in society.

And so today, when the State comes out with a directive for squatters to vacate a place or to stop using pedicabs in major city streets, we end up with policemen quelling a riot, if not a virtual rebellion. Obviously, there are valid reasons for people to resist and their lawyers naturally would defend the people’s rights to justice or due process. But in many cases, city ordinances (which have the force of Law, or so they should) are not implemented without prior notice to those concerned. The hard-headed citizens (like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps) defied law and authority and, therefore, suffered the consequences. We are not happy that people are hurt on either side. In fact, we are not happy that such incidents should occur at all. (These issues, of course, are more than just cases of civil disobedience but mere symptoms of the bigger problem of a society that has abandoned its adherence to law – from the lowliest citizens to the highest officials.)

One wonders then whether we should call our society modern if such issues, whether great or small, could not be settled in a peaceful manner among mature and cool-headed individuals. After millennia of having had experience in law-making and law-keeping (did we not have laws in our ancient Barangay systems?), are we not still open-minded enough to consider the wisdom and the practicality of settling issues in brotherly ways? Or is it because many of us do not have the fundamental education in understanding Divine Laws and are, therefore, not disciplined enough to fear the consequences of unlawful acts and behavior?

The Devil is said to be the father of murderers. This is what Jesus said when He upbraided the Jews who wanted to slay Him for teaching the poor. A soldier or a policeman has the duty to enforce the law of the land. What the law demands then is for the law-abiding law-enforcer to uphold. Before the barbarians came, the Roman Empire (“united by laws and adorned by the arts,” as Gibbon wrote) kept the peace throughout its boundaries for centuries by applying strict discipline among its subjects through the presence of the imperial armies. Yes, there were abuses but the stability and glory of Rome was unshakable as a result of the application of the laws set by the Roman Senate. Even Jesus Himself became a “victim” of Roman justice as a result of the Jewish leaders’ manipulation. It was the one and only case in the history of humankind when the law of humans was applied to serve the Law and Plan of God and, thereby, save all lawbreakers – Good News, this is! For no matter how hard Pilate tried to navigate around the Roman and Jewish laws to save Jesus from the cross, he could not because the justice of God required that the Son of God must die in order to establish His Law of Liberty. That new law replaced the old one and taught us to live through faith in the resurrected Christ and be free from sin and death – that is, to reverse the effect of our violation of God’s laws. Some call it justification; but it is simply a redeeming process that begins with forgiveness and continues with an inward transformation of a person being led by a law “written in the heart” which is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is what is meant by the verse: Love is the fulfilment of the law. (Romans 13:10)

The Philippines is said to be Christian nation. By that, we could mean Christ is the virtual ruler of all the nation’s affairs or, simply, that many people practice a religion related or similar to the teachings of Christ. In essence, if Christ is the unseen ruler in this country, then His law (of liberty) must apply in most of our dealings, for so many people claim to be believers of Christ. Of course, it only means that we are a nation where many people individually believe Christ and practice His teachings ceremonially and/or in reality, whether consistently, sincerely or passionately or not. In a democracy, however, Christianity often takes on the form of, well, a loosely-fitting costume one puts on only when needed or convenient. As a nation among so many, we do not have much to show for our vaunted title as a “Christian” nation. But in reality, Christ reigns over the whole nation, although not all adhere to or accept His rule. That is why there will be judgment.

The most damaging effect that the idea of law placed in the minds and hearts of people throughout history is that of legalism or, more precisely, legalistic mentality. This occurs when people once more return to law-keeping (animal sacrifices, temple-worship, empty rites, etc.) and not progress to love-keeping. That is, they replace the law that gives life within them with the law that kills. Whereas they have freedom to do what is essentially required of the law (to love and serve God and others), they bind themselves again to laws that enslave their lives (by loving this world and its ways). This is the nature of the legal beast, the one that the Gospel teachers fought against in the past and which present teachers still wrestle with.

Many believers today are guilty of legalistic attitude. Either because of the laws or ordinances they have invented or because they see the teachings of Christ as another set of laws they must impose upon themselves and upon others (turning the Law of Liberty into a “new” Law of Moses, it seems), people become blind and cruel judges of those who live freely in Christ. This is why the Inquisition happened. On the other hand, this is why persecutions by civil authority also occurred. And this is why (and how) religious leaders today work hard to maintain their hold upon their followers. The externalities (rites, pomp, physical and religious structures) awe and daze people away from the simplicity that is in Christ.

A simple illustration will show us how people are so confused with the fundamental concept of law. A recent case of an American football player kneeling and raising a finger to heaven after a touchdown being penalized by the referee has raised many protests as well as counter-protests, both from believers and atheists on either side of the fence (confusing, as we said). A game has its rules and the referee, true to his role, applied it without regard to a person’s religious colors. The act or offense, for him, constituted a violation of a “law” and punished the violation. He could be as fervent in his faith to God as the player is; but he is now called a servant of Satan by many protesters. Neither is the player a recalcitrant violator for out of his personal celebration he expressed joy and exaltation that lasted but a couple of seconds or so. The question then for all of us is this: Are we free to violate laws or rules just so we can supposedly serve or worship God in a manner or at a time we deem right for ourselves but may be not so for others? Would Apostle Paul have been a “barbarian” in this case and disregarded the laws or a “Roman” and kept the laws of the game? As viewers, would we favor the player or the referee? Who is the legalistic one in this issue, if there is one? Who violated the law? Take a moment to think what kind of person you are with respect to the law or any particular regulation, like littering or texting while driving. (This could not have happened in the Philippines for we have a different approach to law and order and are more tolerant to religious differences. I use it to highlight, perhaps, how we have put hard lines when we could just as well play or work without boundaries at all. Fines have replaced fun even in our games.)

So you see, based on the passions burning or flickering within us, there are levels to our adherence to law and to faith. A stable society requires devotion to both aspects of our individual and collective lives. God gave us law (it did not evolve nor was it invented, mind you) and the government (as far as it is able to comprehend and apply them) upholds divine rule and justice. We cannot escape both aspects (law and faith) of our humanity and expect to live happy and fruitful lives.

A strong Christian nation, therefore, requires comprehension and obedience to the call of our Master Jesus Christ: living our submitted lives as a continuous living service to our Lord and Savior. The King of Kings indeed has loyal subjects who truly understand why He holds that title. But this army is obviously still very small and ineffective as to capture the whole nation for Jesus. This nation remains a battlefield where God’s warriors fight innumerable forces of darkness. Ultimately, even the governance of our nation will be put before the bar of justice in Heaven. For there is no escape from God and His judgment, now or hereafter.

Do we have a nation already and completely established upon God’s Law of Liberty? Or does it only endeavor to establish law and order based on human or man-made precepts? Do we have a strong Christian nation today or is it something we still need badly to establish?

Our answers to these questions determine our reaction to the events that occur in our daily lives. Consequently, our answers will determine whether we have abundant life now or not. They also determine whether ours is a nation that others (including our compatriots) would love to visit or shun.

(Painting above: "Adam and Eve After the Fall" by Edward Jakob von Steinle, Austrian, 1810-1886)