30 July 2013

Desert places: On being in the Philippines

Last March, I left a job I worked at for four years. I got a new job with the promise of becoming an apprentice for a coveted position, but I also left that job also in July of that same year.

I became very ill, and doctors weren’t sure what it was. I left the place I rented and temporarily stayed with an uncle and aunt. I was stressed, uncertain about the future and felt as if everything had been taken out from underneath me.

My parents reacquired their Philippine citizenship a few years back and returned to their homeland. I thought I could stay with them for a few months to reflect on my life, despite the humiliation of becoming a "boomeranger". It was blow to my confidence and self-esteem.

So last October, I left the United States to “repair unto” the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in England. After several days there, I spent time with family in London, and then made the long journey to the Philippines via Mumbai and Hong Kong.

I spoke with one of the spiritual directors at Walsingham. He was indeed quite helpful with his reassurance, but he didn’t give me the direction and counsel I wanted.

I also prayed before the Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey, and even there, I received no answer.

Whilst in England, I expected thunderbolts from heaven and a dazzling array of signs, or perhaps a miracle ex nihilo. Trumpet blasts, rose petals falling, or perhaps crying statues.

Needless to say, it didn't quite happen that way. And I didn't really expect some sort of supernatural manifestation or a spectacular display of divine power. I wanted revelation in the midst of my uncertainties. I wanted love, healing, and a future. Instead, I got a process.

Upon the leaving the hospitality of the United Kingdom, I would begin a painful process of learning and reconciling. A purifying fire, so to speak.

I'm still in the process of discovering that God is also a potter who beats a lump of clay to make it pliable for use. God is also a God who sometimes dashes our porcelain cup on the ground, then binds the pieces together to mend it.

I had left the United States, where I was born and brought up, to slowly dismantle my comfort zone. To be frank, I left my own country to go crazy and let myself go.

Here in provincial Cebu, I feel terribly foreign.  Although my parents live on the main thoroughfare, we are stuck in the back of beyond, surrounded by mountains, the shore, rice paddies, and lots of goats, chickens, and stray dogs. I grew up in the suburbs and lived in San Francisco for a few years, so this is very different indeed.

Yet in this place I've begun defining who I am. I've also begun to cherish and appreciate things I took for granted. English programming on TV and English-language radio have become very precious to me.  I haven’t been to an Anglican Eucharist since last October, and so the Anglican liturgy has also become very precious. The nearest Episcopal church is two hours and thirty minutes away.

The scary thing is that when I do go to the city, I find that so-called “civilization” feels so unreal now. It is terribly disconcerting. I might find it a bit savage.

I’d like to believe this is all for a reason. Perhaps it is. Perhaps this is just the universe working itself out. I’m not entirely sure. I can only trust somehow that I am being held by love even as I am so far from home... wherever home is now. 

During droughts, we begin to ask ourselves why we didn’t appreciate these things before. When we had it all, why we didn’t we grasp the opportunity to live life, and to share light and love with others? What was there to complain, whine, and mope about when life wasn’t like what it is now?

I’ve realized, like many people who come from the First World, that I am a spoiled brat.

This drought, although it is something I resented at first, is something I need. We all need these Lenten moments, even toward the end of July. It is a desert we go through to understand where the Spirit is calling us. This process renews our minds, and helps us to live into the answers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not particularly pleased about being here. But I know this is changing me for the better.

I don’t think we understand what Good News is until we find ourselves deep in the mire that we have accumulated over the years. It’s not until we sink in quicksand that we realize the value of a helping hand.

The Psalmist writes:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
   he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
   out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
   making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
   a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
   and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:1-3 NRSV*)
This journey of discovery as an American, as an Episcopalian, as a gay man, and as someone of mixed-race Filipino ancestry is not over.  I’m finding out truths about myself I hadn’t discovered before.

John Henry Newman wrote this hymn:
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me. 
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years! 
So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile! 
Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.
And so it is. Living our Baptismal Covenant also requires us to leave our secure castles and to seek God in the wilderness, sometimes in search of a guiding star. In life, we will face these dry seasons. These moments circumcise our hearts with such authenticity and integrity. The wounds, the nails, the spear, the whip, and the gall become real. It hurts, it's painful, and it wrings us out. Oh, do those moments shake us up! It’s a process of becoming real and being genuine. It is Confirmation. These are confirming moments heavily laden with such powerful imagery - rebirth, death, earthquakes, mountains, fire, water, wind, Lent, Advent, the Crucifixion, the Incarnation, the Hypostatic Union, Easter, the Transfiguration, and the Epiphany.

At Baptism, God calls us from death into life, and we respond in faith. At Confirmation, God invites us to journey with him, to follow Jesus. The epiklesis of Baptism becomes at Confirmation an invitation to be broken and poured out for the life of the world. We who are Christ's Body are invited to share Christ's Blood: To give and share of ourselves.

It is the Holy Spirit who awaits us in the desert places. It is there that she relentlessly pursues us.

And she who is God tenderly asks those questions again:
Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? 
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? 
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? 
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself? 
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
And all she needs is your “yes”, your fiat, and your “amen”.

And the Spirit will renew that sevenfold gift within you.

For myself, I pray:

“Behold the servant of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word.”

Yes, fiat, and amen.

Triune God, I trust in your gracious love. Reconcile me to yourself and make all things new. Saranam.


*The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition)
, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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