Monday, July 25, 2011

Across the past: Conquering Ancient Fears

The Dragon Flies Again

Across the past
Across the sky
Across the sea
Across space
Across time

I fly once more
To visit my home
In this my homeland
To revisit my youth
To review my early journey

And conquer my fears
And heed my calling
And face my destiny
And seek the answers
To questions left unanswered

This is the poem I wrote at Manila’s departure lounge on June 1 as we waited for our flight to Cebu, the first leg of our trip to the Visayas. From Cebu, I, my sisters and other relatives would proceed to Bohol and then, finally, to our native province, Negros Oriental. We planned to spend some time in Dumaguete City where all of us siblings studied as kids and then visit our father’s hometown, Siaton, 50 kilometers southwest of Dumaguete.

Yes, it had taken 46 years before I could visit these two towns -- virtual arenas of my past as a child and as a young student. I had travelled back and forth to Mindanao and most islands in the Visayas, including the Occidental side of Negros. This was when I still worked in a bank in Makati. Even Cebu and Bohol I visited several times; but those were the only times I got really close to the old province.

It had also taken me about 25 years to take the courage to ride a plane again. In the interim, I had developed a lot of other phobias — claustro (enclosed places), acro (heights), elevato (a combination of the first two inside a lift, my term), agora (crowded places), cinemato (perhaps, a mixture of claustro and fear of the darkness inside a movie-house), seismo (earthquakes) and even transpo (if fearing a bus ride can be called that). Name it, I had it all it seemed.

But, thank God, I overcame most of them one by one although I do have some apprehensions about many other things. Coming out of my shell and moving around again after about ten years of reclusive living in Baguio helped to rebuild and refresh my mind, my heart and my spirit.

I tell these things to give courage to those who may have the same fears. My cousin who works with trauma victims told me that I was one of the “lucky few” for, in most cases, the fears remain and even get worse.

Writing books and songs, and singing them, of course, certainly saved me from total ruin from a heartbreaking experience. We all know the one thing that can break the heart – love. But love is also the remedy for a broken heart. The love of God and of the people who truly care for us. Even when we don’t feel like loving anyone in return, we find comfort in the fact, for instance, that our mother will always love us no matter what happens. And so many others out there who may not express or show it, but come to our lives bringing the sunshine of refreshment into our lives.

Travelling back to our hometown was not just a much-needed, long-overdue vacation. It reinforced filial love that extended to other relatives whom we had not seen and heard of for decades. It also allowed us to meet new relatives (second generation) and friends who went out of their way to make us feel welcome and accepted as part of their homes and families. Likewise, it opened up vistas I never thought existed when I was a child. Think of Valencia’s forest, Siaton’s Balanan Lake, Tayasan’s Calag-calag reefs and Sibulan’s Balinsasayaw Twin Lakes – sparkling gems on an emerald island waiting for tropical dreamers. But that’s another story.

Why we have to travel to some far places when right here in our country we can find such abundance of friendship and fellowship (not to mention fantastic places) is puzzling. Yes, we see beautiful sights and exciting cultural experiences in many places. But those foreign places do not really belong to us; neither do we belong to them. As the modern diaspora-nation, this may be hard to re-instill among our people who have come to belong to other nations and cultures as well. But I have discovered the value of looking more closely into what made me what I am now. Let me mention just a few things.

As a small boy, I developed this terrible fear of the dark. Stories of ghosts, vampires and “sigbins” (a Visayan-invented kangaroo-like elemental creature) kept me awake many nights and prevented me from venturing five feet away from my parents or any of my older siblings in the dark. Looking back now, my recent fears may have arisen from this early penchant to believe in unreal things. Worries, we call them now, which can take a life of their own and become monsters who inhabit our minds and souls as if wanting to rule over us.

The proper way to erase such fears, I learned while in college, rests in Apostle Paul’s advice in Phil. 4:4: “...whatsoever things are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable— if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think on these things.” But the world is so powerful and wins us over to the side of unreal things. Harry Potter may be cute; but behind his charming aura is an ancient cultic invitation to visit the world of tormented spirits. Hollywood does this best: lift us to heights of fantasy where we desire to stay and forget the real world or bring us down to the pits of darkness where evil spirits fight for supremacy and, oftentimes, do win over our own gullibility by taking much of our time and diverting our attention.

How did I develop fear of the dark? From other, mostly older, people who told stories about unreal things that dwell in the night. Before your kids end up with the same fears, it would be good to avoid such un-bedtime stories. Yes, the worse that might happen is for kids to develop fear of darkness. The worst is for them to fall in love with witchcraft and other cultic practices. In between, some even believe that such stories are allusions to the Christian spiritual warfare. But do we really think that those who make tons of money making people appreciate the cuteness of witches and vampires have any desire to teach Christians a few tricks on battling evil? No, for all we know, they are using these stories and films to soften our fear of or disdain for their real power to destroy our minds and our souls.

There is something in the darkness of our carnal minds we must genuinely fear: the devil. He makes his darkness appear like light to entice us. Ironically, he removes our fear of visually horrible things in order to remove our fear (or apprehension) of the “more terrifying” spiritual fear (of divine judgment) that God wants us to have. A healthy kind of spiritual fear leads to freedom; but the devil enslaves us through deceptive means.

We said “ancient cultic invitation” because the very same stories I heard as a kid (which took away my joy and freedom as a young person) were concocted by those who may have found those stories thrilling and worth telling in real terms. The basis of their stories, as in most myths, may have been real or hallucinatory. In our scientific modern world, such stories can easily be dispersed logically or psychologically. Still, with Hollywood raking in mesmerized minds into its bosom, how do remove this ancient influence from our midst? For the limitless power of the mind can only be made effective when we “think on the true and excellent things”, not the false and depraved things. They divert us from leading truly godly lives. “As a man thinks, so is he,” Marcus Aurelius wrote.

In short, my naive childhood fears came because of ignorance of the realities of the spiritual world. There are wicked spirits and benign spirits. Whoever wins your attention as a child or succeeds in molding your character determines who you are as an adult. Beware then of youthful or naive fears, they could (and will) grow on you during those dark moments.

There are real -- that is, visible things -- that do cause fear in us. Like the ancients who trembled at the sight of wild animals, we quiver likewise at the sight of fearful things or beings. This second case came to my attention when I realized that many of my early fears arose from people who had such strong personalities. One of them is my mother whose hands were swift to discipline me with a hanger or a belt as a boy. Today, she still retains that authoritative voice and glare when she finds me questioning her views. The others were my teachers in elementary who were mostly stern and, sometimes, unsmiling women. My favorite was my sixth-grade, mestiza teacher at Piapi Elementary School, Mrs. Edna Paralejas, who was as beautiful and as stately as Gloria Romero. She was also charming but she knew how to keep us in our places. The main reason I learned to fear her, in spite of her disarming personality, was the fact that she was from Silliman University and, unlike us, spoke very fluent English. She had authority and finesse written all over her. She would embody every other discriminating and intimidating teacher I would have in high school and college – mostly my English teachers: Mrs. Vea, Mrs. Gonzales, Miss Morillo and Mrs. Benitez, my college-speech teacher. (The rest of my male professors at UP College of Engineering, as hard as they tried to, were not as intimidating as the complex courses themselves.)

Corollary to that, I realized those stalwart female teachers did not only develop a fear of authority in me but also real fear for girls or women. Many of us high-school mates, in fact, recently discovered we were mostly “torpes” (we had fear of girls, if not courting them or telling them what we felt can be called a fear). Perhaps, we all had stern mothers or teachers who stunted our confidence when it came to dealing with the opposite sex. Whatever it might have been, I still carry with me this defensive wall against women who may not necessarily intend to cause fear but do create that feeling. The good Lord filled us with such strong emotions; we do not know when and whom to love or fear properly. Or maybe, it’s just me.

Be that as it may, what I found out when I finally visited Mrs. Paralejas after 46 years (she is more than 70 years old now) was that I no longer had the youthful fear I had when she was my teacher. Not because she is smaller than me now or that she has a more wrinkled face than me and that she no longer has the movie-star aura she used to have, but because she looks like my late grandmother who was so doting to me and kept smiling at me. She was no longer the person set on teaching me proper grammar or pushing me to excel with that serious voice and look. She was like a friend, no, a child buddy, who just wanted to talk about simple things. It was a restful conversation, not a stressful classroom lesson with thirty other kids around. When I gave her a copy of my latest book, she gave out a big smile that reflected my own joy in having had such a great teacher who prepared me to be what I am now. Perfect love -- and real joy and peace, as well -- is the absence of fear. There it is: the Lord’s “easy” answer to this emotional dilemma!

Yes, I also got to fly again after more than two decades; but the return flight was something else. Never had I had a more turbulent ride. I was glad I rode with my cousin Susan Monte de Ramos-Soldwisch’s husband, Bill, who knew how to cheer up a phobic person like me, especially at those moments when the plane was rolling and pitching around like a flip-flop on a raging river. During my first flight, I had taken videos of the islands and seas between Luzon and Cebu. Weather was perfect! On that return flight from Dumaguete, however, all I saw were gray clouds and tiny rivulets of rain through the window.

All my fears of sigbins, strict teachers, pretty girls, thunder and earthquakes disappeared in the face of a storm’s tail buffeting our plane. This was the Mother of all fears, the most ancient of all fears – the fear or sting of death that the devil succeeded in planting in humans hearts early on. I was not facing my fear of flight. I was actually flying in a plane that was juggling me around, strong and long enough to make my heart sink to its lowest point. Singing the old hymn “Peace Be Still” helped a lot, like it had done many times before. But I can’t help thinking that I was singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” instead of that song! Even after we touched down, I did not dare sigh in relief until I got out of the plane. The thought of a terrorist’s bomb exploding before we deplaned did come to mind!

It turned out that a typhoon that had just left the country was sucking winds and rains over Manila. After we landed, I heard that all outgoing fights were canceled. Faith is the victory – this is so true over death and even over not-so-funny phobias.

The one remaining real fear I had to face was flooding in the magnitude of Ondoy. (How I envy the people during Noah’s time who had no fear of flooding! Ignorance is bliss indeed.) The taxi driver promised he would take me home through the floods, of course, for the right price. I was hungry, sleepy, tired, heavy-laden and fear-wracked at that point, so I had to pay up about a third of my plane fare for a cab ride. At one point, the driver had to stop and think if he could cross a flooded bridge over a creek. He kept his promise. Being in a plane crash or drowning in a creek was a possibility that did come to me (or in my belly, at least, as my cousin Susan said) that day; but they were after all the same old fears or worries at work given more real manifestations.

My life-long education in handling fears took a rest for a while when I got home, happy and dry. Twenty-three days after I had left, I was back in my room that remained as cluttered as I had left it, but with more dust to clean. I was in no hurry to clean up. Besides, mud from a possible Ondoy 2 could have come that night. At that point, it was just a stray thought, not fear of floods.

Vacations are truly fun when you get to see old and new persons and places. But the best vacations are those that also let you see the old and new persons and places in your own heart.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. -2 Tim. 1:7

(Photo above: Aerial shot of Bicol, showing majestic Mayon Volcano, below the wingtip, Burias Island and Ragay Gulf in between. Taken by Paolo Enteria.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

On Tithing, Receiving, Serving and Giving

Much has been said about the issue of bishops receiving or using money from the government. Before the issue finally dies down and swept into oblivion like so many other issues involving ministers or churches, let us take a quick look at what is really expected of leaders of the Christian flocks everywhere.

As much as I respect the opinions of fellow Christians on the matter of tithing or giving, it is necessary to look into the issue from the perspective of the apostles of the Lord Jesus. And no other personality would provide us a clearer picture of what it is and how it should be done than Apostle Paul.

First off, the word “tithe” or “tithing” (giving 10% of one’s income) is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament as a teaching or as a requirement for believers. The few verses available are allusions to the old Mosaic law given to Jews. This is an important point for it settles, once and for all, the basic difference between what tithing (in particular) is all about and what giving (in general) is all about. Tithing was necessary to support the Levitical priesthood. But with the fulfillment and eventual removal of the Mosaic system (including the priesthood) through Christ’s ministry, such a teaching or practice no longer holds. It was a command of Moses to the Jews only. Being Gentiles, I don't see how we should be compelled to follow it. Unless, we require men to be circumcised as well.

What remains now then is giving. Tithing is out. Or, it was never a command given to Gentiles. (Please check out Acts 15.) So, what is Paul’s teaching and attitude on giving? Can we consider it the final word on the matter?

In Acts 20:17-35, Paul calls for the elders or bishops from Ephesus and tells them how he had conducted himself before all, namely:

1. With humility
2. With suffering from persecution
3. With diligent teaching to the end of his life
4. With innocence

With such a virtuous stance no one then and now could question, he then warns them against the coming wolves. (As a prophet as well, Paul gives a warning to tell the early disciples and us future disciples of what was going to happen. That it did happen is no longer a question. It is just a matter of looking for wolves in sheep’s clothes.) He then commends the leaders to God's grace and leaves them his most ardent and revolutionary teaching on serving and giving, the one ministry that most religious groups are big on (but not necessarily in that order of importance). But what he tells them is so contrary to what is practiced and believed now. It is so obvious that I wonder why so many preachers do not teach this, to wit:

1. “Do not covet people's money or clothes.” (I could almost hear him say, "Do not covet anyone's SUV or Lotto profits.")
2. “I provided for my own needs and those of others. In this way, we must support the weak.” (He does not say: by asking for tithes or donations or alms from among your flocks. Remember, he was talking to bishops not mere disciples.)
3. Finally, quoting Christ, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Surprise!)

How consistent is this statement of the Lord with the stance that Christians should give tithes to support the weak or, as a modern adjunct, to support the work of the Lord? If Paul told bishops to give rather than receive, why do we require people to give tithes to bishops or pastors then? We failed to see this: The leaders are supposed to give, not the followers. Who is more blessed now, the giver (the people) or the recipients (elders or churches)? Spiritually, we give and are blessed. Materially, we receive and are helped. Churches today are materially helped, not spiritually blessed, sad to say. That explains our penchant for nice, expensive church-buildings or monoliths that house our assemblies while the poor live in shanties and starve.

Just look around and see who live in comfort and contentment from the income of the weak and poor and you will see how Paul’s teaching on serving and giving has been totally inverted. No, the funds have been diverted! The weak continue to suffer while the strong bask in glorious wealth. Who live in palaces and nice houses of prayer and meditation? Who ride in cool cars and vans in pursuit of serving the weak and poor? And whose money is it that props up the government’s lotto or sweepstakes if not of the poor, in general? The rich do not bet to become richer, although many do. The poor who make up more than 60% of the population do. Do the Math and you will readily see how a single person can win PhP300 Million in a few weeks while the rest continue to hold on to the same dream until they die.

The government takes and gives. That is its job. That is what taxes are supposed to be. But taking money and giving it to a few people through sheer luck is a wilderness gambit. ("I bet You, Jesus, You won't die if you jump from this cliff." Or, you can bet your life you can become rich.) Ask why Las Vegas can make the desert bloom and shine. Mammon controls such games and those who play it serve the god of this world. Of course, the government also takes and gives to deserving people. It comes, however, from being confused about taxes and pot-money.

As Christians, we are compelled to give – but, to the needy and the weak, not to the strong, learned and powerful, like some pastors, priests and bishops. They must lead by the example set by Paul. It is not too late to learn to do the proper way. In some cases, deserving teachers and elders may need support. But as it is, the exception has become the rule.

In short, why don't we just follow the example of Paul and forget about a dubious command supposedly given to the churches? And why covet that which we clearly see to be what the weak and needy gave in order to get what they need? That does not only make us covetous but vile as well for condoning laziness and greed.

Humility, perseverance, diligence and innocence, as in the case of Paul, are pre-requisites to the genuine ability to give to others who need help. Who can be like Paul and work with his own hands from such a standpoint in order to serve and to give to others? Who can follow his desire to preach the Gospel free-of-charge?

(Painting above: "The Widow's Mite" by James Christensen)