I See God In That

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His Holiness Ricky Gervais

I follow Ricky Gervais on Twitter. He is a funny man, and I think he deserves to go to heaven for creating The Office. But you must know something about Ricky Gervais: he is an atheist, and a pretty obnoxious one, at that—probably as obnoxious about his beliefs as some Christians I have met. But I enjoy his sub-140 character quips. I laugh when he antagonizes religious zealots for spewing out their condescending dogma as condemnation of his allegedly wayward beliefs. It’s all very funny, if you ask me.

I also follow another man on Twitter, a writer named Alain de Botton. He seems to be a lot more polite than Gervais, and upholds the value of certain religious practices, even though he remains an outspoken atheist. He seems very smart; and I must admit, I do follow certain people on Twitter because doing so helps me feel smart. But the truth is—and this is a secret—a lot of clever things fly right over my head without my realizing it.

As for me, I remain a believer in God. Maybe it’s because I’m not that smart. The me of ten years ago would have thrown a fit if he knew of the sorcery I would be captive to in 2012 by listening to atheist views, among others. (Leave him be—he’ll grow out of it.)

The truth is, I have always believed, deep down, that God was inclusive rather than exclusive, and that Christians should be, too. Growing up, we had a hundred different nationalities at school, and that meant Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, non-religious and Christian friends. We would have a Christmas pageant because Christmas is mainstream like that. But we would also respect holidays like Diwali for Hindus, and Eid al-Fitr for Muslims. You get the idea. It was a great way to grow up.

But I lost my way at some point and began acting as though Christians were better than everyone, that we had some sort of magical advantage over the rest of creation. Now that I am older, I look back and cringe at the sort of douche I acted like when I preached, not a gospel of God’s love, but one of being better than others because my lifestyle was supposedly more wholesome, my theology supposedly more sound.

Devout Christian people don’t often say they are better, but many of us unknowingly act like it. We act as though we’ve won the lottery and must let everyone know that we’ve moved up in life. We stop hanging out with the ‘poorer relations’, and get a new set of friends, people who have riches like we do, who think and act like we do. We become religious elitists.

This has cost the Church; and it’s no wonder many people are wary of religion, these days. Newsflash: if the only people who really like your club are in your club, it isn’t a cool club.

Maybe a thousand years from now, Christianity will have lost a significant number of followers. Maybe it will fall from the mainstream and in doing so, regain some of its mysterious appeal. Maybe it will be cool to be a Christian again, the way it is cool to be an atheist in 2012. And then maybe an obnoxious atheist like Ricky Gervais will be an ideological leader of the masses, poking fun at the weak-minded minorities who do their crazy Christian shit.

Maybe then, Christians will understand how bad it felt when we acted above everybody else, when we pushed our rules in their faces. Maybe then will we realize that it doesn’t lead anyone to adopt your belief when you have a superiority complex. And in feeling what it’s like at the bottom, maybe then will we love people better, not because we can recruit them into our big club, but because, just as they are, regardless of what they believe, they deserve our love and respect.

How My Kids Saved Me

A week from now, my wife Amy is due to give birth to our son, Dylan. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am to meet the little guy. It’s like I’m about to win a gold medal at the Olympics.

A lot of parents make sure to instill a sense of gratitude in their children for all that mom and dad have sacrificed for them. That is good. But I don’t think it’s all the gratitude that needs to be happening. As a parent, I’m convinced that I must likewise be grateful to my children for what they have done for me.

Amy and Dylan. See you next week, buddy!

Cadence and Dylan came at a time in my life when I was frustrated, disenchanted and angry about people, religion, even God. I had spent a decade convinced about a career in full time lay ministry, only to have that life fall apart beyond my control. Long time friendships were broken, and the foundations of my belief were rocked. I had invested everything I had to give in that life, and in what seemed like a snap, it was completely gone. 

It’s no secret that the people and things that hurt us often send us in the opposite direction. I have doubted God and His purpose, sometimes even His existence. I continue to be more critical about religion than ever, and easily suspicious of religious people, particularly leaders. This is miles away from the ‘life of faith’ I once knew.

Though I welcomed and was somewhat relieved by the changes in my life, it was emotionally and mentally draining because I was left with no direction, groping in the dark. 

But then one day in 2010, Amy and I found out we were going to be parents for the first time. We danced around the little plastic pregnancy test and cried tears of joy. Two years later, we await due date for baby #2, and man are we excited.

Life still isn’t perfect, if you want to know the truth. I still have frustrations. But I also have children. And being with them infuses my soul with hope, and I am gradually feeling the healing effect.

When God gave me kids, I felt like He gave me another chance to make something of my life. I still have a cause, a greater purpose than just my own pursuits. It’s like He’s telling me that the story isn’t over, it’s just started. And my life is only one piece in the greater narrative of my family. The only thing my kids have to do to make me remember that is breathe in and out.

The truth is, my children have given me life, just as much as I have given it to them. 

For this I will always be grateful to God — but also to my children. One day, when they are old enough to understand, I will tell them the story of how they saved me, how things were quite a mess before they showed up.

And then, I will thank them from the bottom of my heart.

Lessons from Quarantine

My daughter is playing on the floor, creating a terrible mess of toys, without a care in the world. It is then when I think that thought. 

I wonder if at some point, every parent thinks that thought. The one where you worry about the sort of world you are bringing your children into—not her mess of toys, but the one we’ve made for her. That sense of fear that you ushered a life into this world, only for them to inherit burdens they never asked for, much less deserved.  

There is a classic song, "Batang Bata Ka Pa" by The Apo Hiking Society. Its cascading, meandering melody and thoughtful lyric have allowed it to endure over time, with relevance that most songs fail to possess, a mere one or two years after they are penned. Melancholy to the core, the song seems to convey the very sentiment I’ve been prone to ruminate since I became a father: an open-ended question to the world of, Are you going to treat her right?

Those are the good songs, I say. The ones that you were already singing, you just never had the words or music until a singer on a record gave them to you.

Quarantined. (Photo by Amy)

The past month has been a challenging one for our small family, especially our daughter. She suffered from three different illnesses in three weeks. We were at the hospital at least five times in twelve days. And the episodes culminated in a week-long quarantine for me and Cadence in order to protect pregnant Amy and unborn Dylan from infection. If it was tough on us parents, I’m sure it was more of an ordeal for little Cadence who just turned one recently. 

And I couldn’t help but wonder if it was some sort of introduction into an unkind world, an initiation at the hands of a mean frat boy God waiting to take a paddle to an unscarred ass, just to show who’s boss. Welcome to the world, kid—THWAAACK!

Humans worry, and parents are worst of all. And yet, in spite of that, I’ve also been learning what sort of courage children bring, whether they know it or not. For every fear you have, they pull some crazy, carefree antic and somehow it makes you feel like everything will be OK. Their complete abandon in living, and confidence in nature taking care of them models immense faith. Their ability to have fun in spite of sickness shows that these little people are living poems, ironic and unknowingly wise. It’s as though they have found the meaning of life, and are teaching us old people the way to live, like they are privy to some great secret of the universe, but can only communicate it vaguely through coded gibberish.

I’m certain there are many parents in the world who have ached at the suffering of their young ones. Many suffer far more than my family ever has. And the truth is, I don’t have any solutions for either of us. I don’t have the clout to give any advice, especially about such deep matters as human suffering.

All I have is a little girl. She laughed and played through all her sicknesses, only breaking the pattern to whine occasionally. I don’t have immense wisdom. I just have a little bearer of courage, a living example of utmost trust in a being bigger than her. And somehow that serves as answer enough for my life. Somehow it is reassuring.

One day, my little girl will learn that the world does get more complicated and unkind. But I pray she finds someone, maybe her own child, to remind her that although the world is a complicated place, sometimes the big answer is carried by a little girl, playing on the floor right in front of you.

Listen to "Batang Bata Ka Pa" by Apo on YouTube

The breathtaking power and danger of nature. And man’s insatiable appetite to experience it—risking everything for that one moment of glory. For some reason, I see it as an analogy of our relationship with the divine.

Blue Like Jazz is a film adaptation of the New York Times bestseller of the same name by Donald Miller. When I read BLJ seven years ago, my worldview began to shift—from one that noticed God primarily within religious settings to one that was more aware of where He was to be found outside religious walls. I owe Don for being instrumental in the eventual creation of I See God in That.

Blue Like Jazz and Third World Pains

Why is this a big deal to me? Big enough to blog about? If there is one book that has been a catalyst for change in my life it is BLJ by Donald Miller. And now, after a years in the making and a historic Kickstarter campaign that raised money for its release, BLJ has made its way from the page to the big screen…in the USA.

This annoys me. 

Up until a few years ago, I had lived the vast majority of my life immersed in religious settings. For the longest time I believed that God was most present there. In 2005, a friend of mine gave me Blue Like Jazz which she had received for free at her college in California. I stayed up all night reading. It turned out that a chubby Baptist kid from Texas was mirroring my story, which was unfolding a world away in Southeast Asia’s only Catholic nation, the Philippines. Watching Don move from Bible belt Texas to largely secular Portland gave me ideas about “moving”, too.

If any of my longtime friends have ever wondered why I left my pastoral/evangelistic career—and why I believe that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made—you can blame Don Miller for starting me on the thought process that eventually changed my life.

Now, after years of dissatisfaction with my religious setting, I’ve moved on. And guess what? I’m generally happy—except about one thing: Blue Like Jazz the movie isn’t showing in the Philippines. I wonder if it ever will.

Thankfully, the third world is also known for another thing: PIRACY.

Good luck, Don Miller, Steve Taylor, Ben Something-or-other and all the folks behind the BLJ film! I wish you success, and I hope tons of people see it!

To my friends and family in the USA: go see Blue Like Jazz, an independent film based on your friend’s favorite book.

Ticket details on bluelikejazzthemovie.com

Jack White and Crap Guitars

I once watched a documentary that revolved around three famous rock musicians, each of them with a different philosophy about the instrument they all held in common: the guitar. The men were Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, The Edge of U2 and Jack White of The Raconteurs and The White Stripes. To countless rock and roll fans around the world, these men are living legends.

The film begins with Jack White taking a bit of wire, a glass bottle, a random plank of used wood and a nail. He puts together a strange instrument that he is able to plug into a buzzing amplifier and play as though it is a guitar. Later in the film, Jack shares that he prefers broken, out of tune guitars because of the challenge they present in making great music. This would mean nothing if he was a mediocre guitar player; but Jack White has proven time and again his technical virtuosity—and more importantly, artistry—regardless of if the guitar he’s holding is a beat up piece of crap.

As I watched the prolific Mr White make music out of shitty instruments, I couldn’t help but marvel at what something broken can do in the hands of the right person.

As a musician, I used to be particular about what sort of gear I used. But having listened to Jack White, I now care a lot less about stuff and whether it is in good condition or not. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy a great guitar—I do. Besides, I’m not a good enough musician to play out of tune guitars. But I identify with White;  I aspire to be that sort of musician. I want to be the sort of player who can punch out some meaning or infuse some passion into the piece I’m playing, regardless of what’s in my hands.

I’ve always thought that God was like Mozart or maybe Vivaldi, crafting perfect symphonies with an arsenal of the finest of instruments—and who knows, maybe He is like that. But I’m hoping God is a bit like Jack White, working with the grit and imperfection in the world, making a song out of peoples’ mess and brokenness. Because if He’s anything like that, we’re in luck.

Thanks for the music lesson, Jack.

The film mentioned in this entry is It Might Get Loud (Sony Classics). Learn more about it on the official website.

Things Surfing Has Taught Me

Surfing came along in my life when I needed a change of scenery. Though I’d always dreamed of doing it, I started late, at the ripe age of 25. At that point, I was kind of stuck in a rut. But the sense of escape surfing brought was exhilarating. Being in the city kept my troubles close by; but on the open road that led to the sea, I was a free man on an adventure. I’d board the bus in Manila late at night, and 300km later, arrive at La Union before sunrise. In four short years, I’ve made that trip so often that LU has become my second home, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve headed up there.

My two girls enjoying the sunset and surf a few months back. 

Things surfing has taught me:

  • You mess up a lot, and will look like an idiot often. This can last for years. That’s OK, as long as you learn from mistakes… and have fun.
  • Labor very hard for a few seconds of satisfaction. That one moment is worth all the work.
  • Sometimes you have to get out of your routine and just hit the road.
  • The elements will show you no mercy. Be smart and find a way to survive; and maybe one day you can thrive in the chaos.
  • Be humble. Challenge yourself; but stay within your ability.
  • Spend your money on what enriches you.
  • Think about others. Help them if they need it.
  • Be patient.
  • Be content with the conditions you have—a day at the sea is never a waste!
  • If it’s a bad day, don’t worry. There will be another day, and more waves!

I think it’s pretty cool how the lessons I’ve learned on the road and in the water hold true in areas of my life like family, work and even faith. There’s a lot more to say, and I’ll probably be talking about those lessons for years to come. This list is just off the top of my head!

Thanks to surfing, I can attest to the truth of this psalm from scripture: “The voice of the Lord is over the waters.” (Psalm 29:3)

The Dirty Finger

One of my biggest peeves on the road is when oncoming vehicles keep their headlights on bright, even when it’s obvious that they’re searing the retinas of oncoming drivers. On dark, provincial roads, oncoming brights reduce your visibility to a measly ten feet at best. I mean, sure, keep your lights on bright so you can see better—but cut it out when oncoming cars show up!

The temptation is to blind the offenders in return. Especially the buses. The dirty finger just doesn’t deliver the desired effect—a reciprocal peeve—when it comes to most bus drivers, it seems. Last time I checked, the average bus driver considers an angry middle finger to be an affirmation of their personhood, a pleasantry like a funny joke. They give a jovial, thankful smile through the glass as if to say, You’re welcome, loser!

But blinding them back is sweet pleasure. It is the headlight equivalent of sixteen dirty fingers. Right back atcha, @#$%*&!!! And then you’ve got a potential game of blind chicken on your hands. If you want to further risk your life, and that of your passengers, this is the best thing to do.

The problem with the headlight cuss-out is that it doesn’t help you see any clearer. It makes you even more tense. You clench your fists tighter, and then your teeth. You dig your toenails into your shoes, and before long the tension gets you constipated. 

But it’s OK. The very reason you got pissed off in the first place was that somebody compromised your safety. You should go do the same thing to them, shouldn’t you? Increase your own chances of getting killed. After all, revenge is sweet. Dangerous, and hypocritical at the same time. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Fight fire with fire, headlight with headlight.

Such is the human condition.

I’d rather blind the other person than try to see better myself.

If I can’t see, neither should he.

…There’s got to be a better way to be pissed off. We just haven’t got enough middle fingers to keep up.

Not Ready To Be Dad 2.0

So yeah, we’re expecting Baby #2. Baby #1 is not even one year-old, and already Amy is in her second trimester. Boy, that was fast. Before long, we’ll be cleaning up #2’s number twos, half in awe at such amazing grace, writing misty-eyed blogs about it, and half horrified at how much poo we need to clean up. 

Am I ready to be a dad again? Honestly? No. But as I ask my friends who are on the verge of arriving at major, life-altering milestones, Who is ever ready for the big events of life? After enough thought and maybe prayer, you just know that the time has come. But ready? Who knows what that even means? And how can you be so sure?

I thought I was ready for marriage; Lord knows I tried to be. But midway into our first marital fight, I was sure I could have never prepared for it in advance. 

When Cadence came along, I knew I wasn’t prepared to be a dad for the first time. And yet, in the midst of the flurry of having my first child, I never felt more able to do things I had never before done. Like clean up poo ten times a day or soothe an inconsolable infant. 

It’s ironic how when you think you’ve got it made, life hits you blindside. And those times you feel inadequate, you get most surprised at what you seem empowered to accomplish by some mysterious force.

I don’t think I know anybody who was sufficiently ready for the big moments in life. A first job, a new city, marriage, or having kids. If you claim you’re 100% ready, you are either naive or lying. Both take away from the fearsome glory, the beautiful terror that a new experience offers.

That’s why I’m not making any claims. I am not ready to be Dad 2.0. I’m trying to be, but who knows? The best I can do is pep talk myself, do some emotional push-ups, pray more, work harder, and hope. Hope that this grace-from-God thing is actually real. Because there’s only so much preparing I can do. The rest is out of my hands.

So I brace myself and let life hit me hard. O, the glory!

How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight. I don’t wanna die without any scars. So c’mon, hit me before I lose my nerve. — Tyler from the movie Fight Club (1999)

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