Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Preparing for CHRISTmas

I had been busy mind storming about possible family bonding activities for the Christmas season. I checked the internet for suggestions on what families can do together to make the “holy days” memorable but nothing seemed to excite me from the options I have seen. We already visited Casa Santa and had our pictures taken with a live Santa Claus last year. We have already watched the C.O.D. or Christmas on display in Greenhills as a way of continuing the family tradition my parents started when my younger brother and I were still kids. We have toured around Makati to marvel at its Christmas lights display. We have shopped together for gifts for our extended family members. What else can we do? I continued my Christmas shopping and bought some of our needed grocery for Noche Buena while I continued to be open to possibilities.

Then, I got my biggest surprise this Christmas when I was asked to organize the Simbang Gabi for our condominium community four days before it started. I learned that our Liturgical Committee Head was already busy preparing for his overseas assignment soon and begged off from the responsibility of organizing and overseeing the preparation. Being his assistant, the responsibility landed on my lap. I initially thought that the task wouldn’t be very difficult since there are other members of the Liturgical Committee and there are cluster representatives in the different buildings in our community. But I was wrong. I found out in the course of the preparation and coordination that there were only three reliable members of the Liturgical Committee. And that included me, a lay minister and our head. Since our head was busy with his work commitments, he only committed to provide the music by playing the keyboards. I was already very happy with that. At least, finding a musician was one task off my very long to-do list. The lay minister, although very knowledgeable with the requirements for the Holy Mass, relied more on me to mobilize and coordinate with people and to provide the other items or requirements for the Mass.

It was very stressful especially in the beginning because I had to do almost everything and I had to move from one place to another during the mass because no one else volunteered or was familiar with the parts of the mass. There were only a few cluster representatives who responded to my text messages and calls when I coordinated. Out of the many representatives, I think less than 10 percent responded and much lesser are those who responded positively. A lot of times during the first few days of the Simbang Gabi, I wasn’t sure who was going to be the readers, offertory ushers, fruit or grocery basket donors or choir. Every night, I kept praying to God that He would touch and move hearts and that He would send other volunteers who would help me organize the Simbang Gabi. Then, slowly each night, God sent one or two more volunteers until it came to a point that I didn’t have to be the only commentator. I thank God that there was another woman who volunteered. This development enabled me to focus on other tasks/roles that needed to be done/filled during the mass like ensuring that the symbolic offering every night for the Christmas Novena would be in order and that those assigned to offer would not forget to bring what they are supposed to bring and walk at the right moment. That the offertory procession would be in order and that there are people chosen to carry the love offering baskets, water, wine and host and that they are carried in the right order at the right time. That there would be Power Point slides used to project the Responsorial Psalm, Christmas Novena, Prayers of the Faithful and the songs for the Mass and that there would be someone who would operate the computer and the lcd projector. That the contents of the mass kit are complete and ready for use, etc. etc.

I remember there was a night when our resident musician could not make it to play the keyboards for the mass and George was not sure if he can make it because of work concerns as well. I had to gather recorded mass songs so that we’d still have music during the Simbang Gabi. Thank God someone volunteered to be commentator that night because I needed to be the one who would operate the computer and lcd projector and assist the technical assistant in playing the songs.

I experienced so many challenges preparing for the Simbang Gabi but the miracles I witnessed each night were so much more. The first miracle I witnessed was the very big turnout of mass-goers. The chairs were not enough since day 1 because those who attended the Simbang Gabi in our clubhouse were always more than a hundred. In fact, on the first night and on the last night of the Simbang Gabi, the attendees were more than doubled because our clubhouse was filled with people up to the second floor. The second miracle was that I always get surprised with the turnout of donors for the fruit or grocery basket. There were days when no one has committed or pledged to donate and I would just pray to God that He would move my neighbours to be generous. And then I noticed that it was during those nights when I wasn’t certain if someone would donate or offer a basket that we had the most fruit/grocery baskets offered. Amazing! There was also a night when no one confirmed among those I texted until around an hour before the Mass. A neighbour who was supposed to donate and offer during the weekend but did not make it called me and told me she will donate and offer that night. What perfect timing! It was only then that I realized why she was not able to attend and offer during the weekend. It was because she was appointed by God to offer that night when no one else would donate and offer except her. The third miracle I witnessed was the raising up of new volunteers among the residents of our community. One by one, some neighbours eventually approached me and volunteered to help in their own small way. We still have a very small group of volunteers for our liturgical services but it’s better than not having any volunteer at all. I continue to hope and pray that God would send more laborers into the harvest for the harvest is great but the laborers in our community are few. The fourth miracle I witnessed was when our next door neighbour who rarely went to Mass attended our Simbang Gabi and they even agreed to carry the wine and host in one of the Masses. And then I wondered… Could it be that some of our neighbours are like them who are not regular churchgoers but because the Mass was already in the comforts of our clubhouse, they have chosen to attend? Possible! And with that realization, I grew in conviction to endure the hardships, challenges and inconveniences of organizing the Simbang Gabi.

The fifth miracle I got was the answer to my question and search at the start of the Advent season. I realized while preparing for the Simbang Gabi that this was the family bonding activity God wanted me and my family to share this Christmas. I discovered that this was the first time my husband was able to complete the Christmas 9 Day Novena Masses. And his experience was made more memorable because he was not only a spectator or regular attendee but he had some active participation and specific roles in some of the Masses because I needed his help and there weren’t many servants/volunteers who can help me. Most of the time, he was part of the music ministry and he was helping out Yanthy with the symbolic offering. Our 2 year old son, Yanthy, was able to attend the Simbang Gabi for the first time this year because it was held in our own clubhouse and it was held in the evening when he was still awake. He even played a special part because of the symbolic offerings which are part of the Rogationists’ way of having the Simbang Gabi. It was also very meaningful and memorable for our family especially for Yanthy because he lent his things to the Baby Jesus in the manger. Since I was the one organizing and only a couple of residents volunteered to provide the symbolic offerings, a number of the things offered in the manger are Yanthy’s things. I was very happy that Yanthy was involved somehow in preparing for Jesus’ birth. I saw how eager he was to lend Baby Jesus his baby pillow, baby clothes and toy drum. I was glad to see my son happy to offer his own things so that the Baby Jesus would have something to “use.” It was a delight to see and hear my toddler son sing liturgical and Christmas songs during the Mass. It was a fulfilment of my dream; that one day when I have my own family, we will be one household serving the Lord. I only hoped and prayed for something nice that our family could do and experience together this Christmas but God surprised me and exceeded my expectations by giving us this amazing and unforgettable experience of the first ever Simbang Gabi in our condominium community. These are just some of the many miracles I witnessed as I organized the Simbang Gabi. There’s so much more but I am at a loss for words right now. I just can’t help but marvel and be awed at God’s amazing hand.

It was an exhausting and challenging 9 days but if I would be asked to do it again, I would still say yes. The Simbang Gabi experience did not only help me and my family prepare our hearts for the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. It also helped many residents in our community prepare their hearts for Jesus. It was an honor and a privilege to be God’s instrument and to be like St. John the Baptist to our neighbours. As I end this reflection and sharing, let me share part of the homily of Fr. Tim, one of the priests who celebrated the Simbang Gabi with us. He said that God needs people like Mary who are willing to make a sacrifice so that others would experience His Love. His words struck me because God called me to make a sacrifice this Christmas so He could use me to organize the Simbang Gabi which would bless a lot of people. I wasn’t stressed much because of the Christmas shopping because I started early. It was only later that I realized why God moved me to do this early. It was because He was going to give me another assignment. What stressed me was the day by day preparations for the Simbang Gabi when a lot of the things we needed were provided sometimes literally at the last minute. But it also paved the way for me to witness God’s faithfulness and amazing grace. Then I realized, it was not only me who made a sacrifice but also my family because we were exhausted during the Simbang Gabi because of the preparations and coordinations and we slept late most of the time including Yanthy. We were not able to prepare much food also for our Noche Buena because I didn’t have much energy anymore to cook a number of dishes. I simply prepared a pasta, salad and soup dish. Moreover, although we were able to shop for gifts for other people and for Yanthy, my husband and I were not able to spend ample time searching and buying gifts for each other. We were not able to go out also to have a date on our wedding anniversary because we needed to serve in the Simbang Gabi. We simply had lunch as a family in a restaurant and offered a fruit basket and a copy of my book during the Mass. But as we reflected on our Simbang gabi experience on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we realized that what we have experienced as a family this year is what is essential. That’s what really Christmas is all about. It’s all about Christ and about being Christ to others. I’m blessed to have given Jesus Christ -- the real reason for our celebration -- the gift of myself. And I’m doubly blessed to have received Him in my heart as the most precious Christmas gift I have received this year.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wanted: Story Teller

I’ve been meaning to write a reflection right after my husband and I attended the Kerygma Conference last November but I simply couldn’t find the time. Now, I know why. God wanted me to experience the insights I gained from the conference more powerfully. He gave me that opportunity last Tuesday when I was invited to speak on Love and Sexuality to more than 500 first year college students at a university in Manila.

I was deeply moved by the talk given by Bro. Bo Sanchez during the Leadership Track of the Kerygma Conference last November. He began his talk by removing his shoes. Then he said that he doesn’t claim to be better, more holy or more spiritual than anybody present in that room. He believes though that the reason he is where he is right now and he is doing what he is doing right now, which is to preach and lead a big community like Light of Jesus (LOJ), is because God simply WANTED him to serve Him in that way. Then, he said that maybe some of us present in that Leadership Track might be wondering why we’re attending that track. He said that there is only one reason... God wanted us to be there! We are all leaders in one way or another because God wanted to use us. It’s not because we are good or we are the best at what we do. It’s not because we earned our positions. It’s not because we deserved to be where we are. It’s all grace! God chose us simply because He wanted us to serve Him by being leaders and role models in our respective circles of influence.

I grew to appreciate these truths and insights more powerfully when I shared my story to college freshmen last Tuesday morning. I felt that I didn’t have enough time to prepare for my presentation. I was out the whole weekend with my family before my talk and I only had the day before the scheduled event to prepare my material. With this feeling of inadequacy, I came before God in prayer last Monday morning. I told God how I felt and I asked Him to grant me the grace of His humble wisdom so I could speak the right words to the youth who will be listening to me. God led me to reflect on the readings for the day of my talk.

Let me quote the lines that struck me from the readings.

“Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; Indeed, she has received from the hand of the Lord double for all her sins.”“Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; Cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by his strong arm; Here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.” (Isaiah 40:1-2, 9-11)

“Sing to the Lord a new song; Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; announce his salvation day after day. Tell God’s glory among the nations; among all peoples, God’s marvellous deeds.” (Psalm 96:1-3.)

And finally from the Gospel according to Matthew 18:12-14.“What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the astray? And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray. In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.”

I was amazed! I felt God’s affirmation that He really wanted me to speak to the youth the following day. He was sending me to proclaim the Good News to them by sharing my story. He wanted me to testify about His goodness and faithfulness in my life. He wanted me to join Him in seeking His lost little ones and to help bring them back to His fold. What an honor and a privilege! He chose my story out of countless love stories. Why? Well, I think it’s because my story is just like any ordinary girl’s story. What made it extraordinary was God’s amazing involvement in carrying out His perfect plan for my life. I was confident that God would bless my efforts in preparing for the event. I was confident that whatever is lacking in my presentation, God would supply so that His purpose would be fulfilled. I may not be the best preacher, speaker or story teller but He chose me. He has anointed me. I know that He would enable me. I also agree with my husband when he said that one reason God puts me in situations where I feel that I am not prepared or adequate is because he wants me to rely on His grace to deliver and fulfil His purposes. So that when things turn out well, I would not credit that to myself but to God’s grace and power.

True enough, God blessed the symposium where I spoke and shared my story as a single lady making the most of my season of singleness and of course my love story, how God fulfilled His promise to me of giving me a godly helpmate.

As I pondered on the events of that day during my time of prayer that same night, I couldn’t help but be awed. I realized that even if there was only one student or little one who needed to find his/her way back to God, God would still organize a symposium just for that person. And so I thought, that even if there was only one student who was moved and inspired by my story, my story would still be worth telling because of the value that our Father gives to each one of us. I may not know the extent of my influence last Tuesday but I’m certain that God’s purpose has been fulfilled. I know that by sharing my life and love story, those students were given an alternative on how to live their single lives. They were given an opportunity to make a choice – to involve God or not in their lives, be it in their academics, future career or love life. I can only pray that they would also choose to let God be God in every aspect of their lives.

I also realized that every opportunity that God gives me to share my life and love story is God’s way of blessing me. Yes, He’s using me to bless others who listen to me. But, they are not the only ones blessed. He blesses me as well! How? First, He blesses me by reminding me of the wonders He has done in my life. How can I forget God’s great love, mercy and faithfulness to me if I keep on telling people about His works in my life? How can I not go on even amidst trials and difficulties when I am reminded constantly that I have a powerful God who moves mountains, who makes walls collapse and who makes the impossible possible? Second, He blesses me by helping me grow in appreciation of my husband. Every time I tell our love story, I am reminded of the reasons why I chose to marry this man. God strengthens our marriage and my commitment to my husband every time I share our love story. Third, I am reminded that I am blessed to have a child and to be a full time mother at this time of my life. I am reminded that all these were made possible by God because He loves me very much and He wants to give me only the best.

My heart is bursting with joy! I feel that through that experience God gave me back the fervour of my first love. I’m just so in love with Him again! And I commit to testify to His goodness, faithfulness and love for as long as I shall live not only with my words but most importantly with the life that I live. Just as Bro. Pio Español said in his talk during the Leadership Track of the Kerygma Conference, the world needs role models more than great preachers. People can forget what you say in your talks or presentations but they will not forget your legacy. How you live your life is more important than how you deliver your lines during your talks or presentations. That is what I strive for – that by the choices that I make and the life that I live people will know that God reigns in my life and that I’m an ardent lover and follower of Jesus.