When Pastor Leo invited me to speak in the Philippines, I felt really honored. If it worked out that I could visit during the winter school break in China, I figured I would probably speak once or twice, go to some church functions, do some sightseeing, and that would be about it.
Well, I spoke seven times, was overwhelmed by how deeply the church and the students welcomed me in, and had a truly “culinary” tour of the Philippines!
Lord, I wish I could describe how excited I was to get Pastor Leo’s emails suggesting topics for my lectures. He offered these: the value of reading good books, the spirituality of reading (in 2 parts), and words of delight – with a lecture on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in honor of February, and a devotional I did on Psalm 84, one of my very favorites.
To be honest, I completely underestimated how long it would take me to write each of the lectures. For my classes in China, it takes me about half a day to pull a 2-hour class together. However, my China classes usually center around a basic topic or informational video, with games and discussions thrown in. I don’t really lecture. Each lecture for the Philippines, on my calculations, had to be around 6700 words, and I’m still far too much a novice teacher to feel confident in my ability to talk for 45 minutes based on an outline. So yeah, I completely scripted each lecture. Each one took me hours, because they weren’t about “pre-set” topics like, say, the powerpoint on American politics I just spent the afternoon putting together.
Writing out these lectures was an enormous task. These topics are topics I adore and have been exploring and building up as major pillars of the way I look at the world since I started to read. But this was the first time I had to move it all from its nebulous place in my mind onto paper – I had to give it a heart, and a soul, and a body. I had to articulate what turned out to be my personal theology of reading.
As a side note, I was kind of surprised by how much all this stuff is linked to Scripture for me. I understand now why James says “let not many of you be teachers.” It’s easy to tell students to use quotations as evidence to back up your claims, but it’s different with Scripture. We are in submission to, or implicated by Scripture, which means that we have to tread very carefully when using Scripture as a teacher. Nevertheless, it startled me to see how thoroughly Scripture has taken over my philosophy of literature and learning, like those broken Japanese vases that are repaired with gold.
All that, and I didn’t start until almost three weeks before my trip to really start writing. Basically, I spent probably around 6-10 hours daily all that time writing. Now, I’m neither a fast writer nor a creative one, so I wasn’t able to complete all my lectures before I left, and ended up finishing the last one while in the Philippines.
Finally the day rolled around to fly out to the Philippines and the flying experience was awful, but frankly, I don’t want to be rereading this in ten years and relive all that nonsense so I’ll just leave that part out 😉
I got a grand welcome when I finally arrived at the Philippines. The Galanzas are very dear family friends, but the way things panned out, I was always at school or abroad when they came and stayed at my parents’ home in California. Because this last year my visa to China was so delayed, we overlapped and I was finally able to see for myself why my parents refuse to let them stay with anyone else when they’re in California and why even my resolutely solitary younger sister gets a sparkle in her eye when she talks about them. We don’t even call them “Pastor Leo” and “Hannah” anymore – they are Kuya Leo and Ate Hannah, which is Tagalog for big brother and big sister.
They remind me in a lot of ways of the family I stayed with when I was in England a couple years ago – significantly, also a pastor and his wife, moved and motivated by the love of the Lord. The pastor takes care of all the people stuff, and his wife is his rock and the paragon working behind the scenes. He is a scholar as well as a pastor, and she is all elegance and grace. They can talk about tricky issues with tact but know how and when to laugh and not take things too seriously. They are both kind and warm and crazy generous – and their kids mirror all their best qualities. They really took me into their family and made me feel like another daughter to them.
Also Kuya Leo has a personal library that makes me drool. Thousands of neatly stacked books on theology, philosophy, history, and more have pretty much taken over the whole house.
My stay got off to a running start. By the time my flight, which had been delayed, came in and we made it back to the house and to sleep it was nearly 2AM Sunday morning. We had to be downtown early in the morning for church, and I would be giving my first lecture, on the value of reading good books, later that afternoon.
I was looking forward to church. I don’t have a church in China, but I have been missing more than consistent preaching. I’ve been missing being part of a community specifically in service to Christ. In China I’m either the subject of stares and curiosity, or I’m left entirely alone. In either case, I’m a sovereign nation, so to speak. Or the Harvard grad.
It was good, in the deepest sense, to be able to sit next to Ate Hannah and be included in the worship and the preaching. Mt. Holy Church is deliciously inclusive, but I don’t mean that in the politicized sense. It was more like a day-long family get-together, with everyone extending the warmest attention to Pastor Leo and Elder Wilbur, who in turn made sure to give everyone space at the table, so to speak. All of us made one through the love of the Lord. I loved hearing the preaching too. Everyone talks, at least seemingly naturally, half in Tagalog, half in English, and it was just enough for me to get the big ideas and to be able to pay attention to the speakers themselves.
I love it when the love of the Lord animates people; it’s unmistakable because of how full-hearted and sincere it is. It means we wear our hearts on our sleeves when God is the topic of conversation, and I think there are few things more precious and beautiful than that. It meant the world to me to be able to see that again before going up and revealing my heart to a hundred people who were all strangers.
Lord, there was actually a lot to sort through emotionally and mentally before going up there. I knew what I had to say was solid, so I wasn’t nervous on that account. I was and am convinced that what I had to say was something that God has given to me specifically -but while the content was good, I had my doubts on my execution.
I am weirdly aware of my being only 25. I don’t think I’m lacking in self-confidence, but in all honesty, how much credibility would you give a 25 year old lecturer? Perhaps I’ve done more than some 25-year-olds, but I’d still take what I say with a grain of salt. Not to mention, most of the people I spoke to in the Philippines would be about my age. I expect, too, that the ideas I talked about are still pretty germinal. I fully expect that these are things that I’ll be exploring and unpacking for the rest of my life, and I’m really excited about that. But at the time I was putting them on paper, I was praying that God would give me the right words so that I could express just how deeply these ideas informed my way of looking at the world and how lovely and precious they have been to me as a part of my identity.
To express something so deeply rooted in my heart, though, it was necessary to make it absolutely clear that I wasn’t speaking as a Harvard graduate. I have said this before, but I still resent how thoroughly Harvard has taken over my reputation. In fact, honestly, I’m actually angry about it. Harvard has nothing to do with my identity; it is a thing I did, a blessing that God gave me, an impressive enough couple of words on my resume. But it doesn’t make me me; and to share what God has been building in my heart it was imperative to me that I didn’t stand on my reputation, but on the reality of what God has done in my life–a reality that I thoroughly shared with my brothers and sisters there.
I can’t describe the relief, the “hole that felt filled-ness” I experienced – like cracking your back, or taking a hot shower after a long and tiring day, or a headache dissipating with a ripple off the back of your neck; something eased, there in the Philippines.
They took me at my word.
I felt it, the way the atmosphere flexed and shifted without a sound. I never felt the slightest bit unwelcome, but just the usual response anyone would have to a stranger (never mind a baby-faced American with a Harvard degree!): reserved expectation, a bit of wariness. I told them that I didn’t want them to look at me and think Harvard; I wanted to stand before them only as a sister in the Lord and they took me at my word. And I felt it in my bones, and there was an attendant shift in my own apprehension. I moved onto solid ground; I forgot about being impressive, and felt the way the words I’d written still resounded through my bones – how I meant them with everything I’ve got. At the end, after a bit of initial shyness, I was rewarded with people showing me how what I said moved them, sometimes in spite of themselves, with questions, comments, and responses that, just a little bit, at the very back of things, were a little bit giddy. I recognize that giddiness – it’s a river of joy that spills out over its banks every now and again to cleanse your eyes and to reenchant you with the loveliness of the Risen One. I get it too.
It was such a treasure to sit at the edge of the pew, neck craned forward, watching the conversation continue, and to realize – Lord, you did what I asked. You took over, and people are coming into contact with you through what you taught to me.
More than three weeks later, and I’m still getting misty-eyed over it.
And that was just the first talk, of course. There were six more to go, and they all proceeded in much the same way, with students coming up shyly to me after I spoke to shake my hand and to tell me how they looked at reading differently now. Kuya Leo and his daughter Em had their students all write me feedback, which was an incredible benefit and luxury for this novice teacher. It moved me, how so many of them responded not merely to me, but to the Christ who had graced me with words that actually started to do what I had been hoping and praying for months beforehand that they would: point only to him, and have nothing to do with me (which, bless, they got down 100%. I kept expecting actionable concrete criticism on how to improve my lecturing skills, but they had picked up on my excitement and ran with it, and that is 100% what I want as a teacher, a reader, and a believer.)
One of the talks I did on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in honor of Valentine’s Day. I had never read it in its entirety before preparing for the lecture, and I admit it surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to be wowed, but that was stupid because it is Shakespeare, and you’d think I have learned by now that Shakespeare is usually quite impressive. The more that I studied the play, the more I found in it, and as it happened I ended up cutting out paragraphs of material even as I was up there speaking. I remember thinking at the end of it: Lord, thank you that you are you, I am me, Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and I am not Shakespeare. It made me giggle – what a funny thing to be thankful for – but I love that luxuriant feeling of plenty I get when I teach literature written by others, particularly when I’m free to “take it home,” so to speak, and discuss it in relation to the Gospel. The talks that were my own were solid, sure, but I’m still at the very beginning of things. There’s still tons of development to do, even if I think the heart and the bones are mostly there.
That Shakespeare Sunday, the church had something else planned for me. I’ve already said this was a “culinary” trip – I’ve never been on a vacation where so many foods have been brought for my pleasure. Everything was delicious, and everyone’s constant surprise that I liked it cracked me up. “Here try this! You like it?”
“Yes, thanks! It’s good! What is it?”
“WOW, you liked it? Really? Wow, you are so brave!”
EVERY time! Finally I asked, “Do Americans not usually like Filipino food?”
“Oh no! It is too new to them, especially since there are so many new dishes. But not you – you are tough!”
Ahh. Well after having had lamb intestine sprung on me in England, I came to the realization that I can eat anything, and that people want to eat good food.
Now, truly, all the food in the Philippines was delicious, and everyone graced me with it in so many different ways; I’ve lost track of all the restaurants and homes people took me to and the wonderful dishes they made for me. But that Sunday, the church – especially the youth – took it upon themselves to ensure that I did not leave the Philippines without partaking of that particularly Filipino delicacy, balut.
Balut is boiled, fertilized duck egg.
I ate that.
There’s a video on my Facebook if you want proof. The commentary is amazing – one of the teenagers explained, to everyone’s roaring laughter, how to eat the balut (What do you call the yellow? The sunshine!) and you can hear someone say, “Don’t see, don’t see!” The running joke is that you eat balut in the dark, so you can’t see the chick.
Later Kuya Leo told me they had been keeping an eye on me afterward to make sure I was feeling ok after eating it.
And to be honest, it tastes just like an egg. If you don’t see it, you wouldn’t realize it’s any different from a regular hard boiled egg; it tastes pretty much the same.
They had brought other things for me to try too – and then after we went to dinner! Just another example of that unparalleled generosity!
It’s hard to keep track of all the foods I got to sample. Even at the Bible Institute, where we had lunch several times, people were telling me: Stay, stay! We get better food because of you!
I don’t know how much I buy that though – the food was always very delicious!
The day before I left, I got some going away presents, and I still smile when I see them on my bookshelf. We had lunch that day at the school, but before we ate everyone paid attention to Pastor Leo as he called me up to the front of the room. He presented me with a lovely plaque of appreciation from the school and a present later discovered to be a pretty lilac purse from the staff and faculty of the school. And after he had finished, the student body had a gift for me too – another pretty bag of traditional Filipino craftsmanship.
And later, we all took pictures together. What a precious memory of a precious time I will treasure all my life. It was such a privilege and blessing to spend time with you all and to rejoice with you in what God has done for us!
Comparing the Philippines with my experiences in China, Lebanon, and the US over the past couple years, I remember what my pastor in Boston said once about the “radical individuality” that characterizes Americans. After going to the Philippines, it strikes me that this concept of radical individuality makes every man a nation. We aren’t one nation, indivisible, heck, we aren’t even a global community or a diverse one. We’re each isolated little islands, and at best what we can do is support other nations’ concepts of sovereignty without ever actually setting foot on those islands, if I’m not torturing the analogy.
This really begins to get at what I felt at Harvard – I know I could depend on others to support my right to be a Christian, but when it comes to actually setting foot on my island very few people dared, ostensibly for reasons of “keeping the peace,” which is well and good until we come to the point where we realize that we don’t actually know each other at all in any real and meaningful sense.
And also like actual nations, there’s always a lot of skepticism about motives for doing things – we second guess one another, we twist each others’ words, we overanalyze them for the slightest hint of animosity. We’re suspicious – nastily suspicious of one another, and this, I have to admit, is true of me too.
While I do think a bit of skepticism is healthy, being in the Philippines showed me just how much this radical individuality has shaped me without my permission. The Filipino people were all extraordinarily generous – not just with stuff, though two weeks after leaving I’m still enjoying the gifts and snacks they showered me with, but with themselves. When I said anything, they took it at face value. They expected me to mean what I said, and they meant what they said. It took me a while to figure it out – it’s not that they are a simple people, because unfortunately today “simple” means stupid, and they most certainly are not that at all, and it’s more than “honest,” because today “honest” can carry connotations of bluntness or poverty (why?) and those aren’t necessarily true either.
Though it carries overtones of simplicity and honesty, I think the right word to describe the Filipinos is generous – in meaning what they say (and the things they say are also always generous), and extending you the courtesy of believing you mean what you say, that idea of individuals as sovereign nations dissipates. You hear a lot of talk of “family” in the Philippines, and from my very first day there that’s what they extended to me. In some ways, that is (or ought to be) true of any church, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I think that you’d be hard pressed to find it done more beautifully or more fully than I did in the Philippines. Now again, my experiences were very limited; I really shouldn’t generalize. But from what I saw, and comparing it to western “radical individuality,” I think Filipino people are really brave in the way they relate to people and ideas. It’s true “open borders,” and the warmth and generosity with which they extend their welcome is beautiful and God-glorifying.
And in the weeks since I closed out that last Word document and have left the community of the Philippines for the sovereignty of China I’ve been coming to realize what a grace it all was, not just because I was able to be a part of the community but also because of the work of writing out the lectures. More than once since then, I’ve run into echoes of the things that I labored to bring out in my lectures – echoes sounded by men and women of God who are my elders in the faith, and I’ve realized that it is just that all of us are fording further up and further in to the oceans of God’s goodness, and getting touched by the waves.
I listened to an old sermon from my pastor in Boston recently, and he called God’s walking with us grace, which electrified me because that’s exactly how I defined grace in one of my lectures – a selfless walking with. Only I had used it in reference to a professor of mine; I didn’t quite make the connection to that being what God does with us. I’d felt a little hesitant about the definition when I wrote it, but not any longer.
I read Peter Hessler’s River Town a couple weeks ago, about an Ivy League educated man who taught English literature in rural China. He isn’t a believer, but he captured and expressed some of the same discomforts and reservations about academia that I have – again, God telling me that my following Him and my youth don’t invalidate my judgments.
I read Ann Voskamp’s A Thousand Gifts after I got back, and was pleasantly shocked to find that what she said about living a life of gratitude is what I told the students in the Philippines is the secret to reading poetry – take all the time a poem needs to talk to you. See with alert and alive eyes the graces of the world around you, don’t hurry. Ann Voskamp showed me how to put two and two together.
It’s amazing to me to see how truly that “In Him we live and move and have our being,” and I love seeing how, without my even being conscious of it, the loveliest and most precious things and ideas I’m built upon–that we as sons and daughters of the living God are built upon–are all intrinsically designed to bring us further up and further in to the outrageous grace of knowing him.