As of writing this, it’s been two days after the 25th of December, and by now, everyone has unwrapped their gifts and enjoying them.
Amidst the festivities and decorations around us, we remember the many Christians around the world who may not be in the best circumstances to celebrate Christmas traditionally for reasons of war, sickness, exploitation, death of a loved one, etc.
But that is as far as the human and material world had created the Christmas celebration standard – bright twinkling lights, decorated trees, boxes of gifts, banquets, parties, and music.
In Biblical and spiritual reality, the Lord Jesus Christ came into this world amidst darkness and strife. Isaiah prophesied:
“The people walking in darknessIsaiah 9:2
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
I believe that a person who truly understands the meaning of Christmas, the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, will always have the best reason to celebrate regardless of circumstances.
Let me share the most profound Christmas gift I received in my lifetime and how I got it in 2004.
It may sound unusual or unique to many, but for some reason, I didn’t cry when our Dad died in January 2004.
We had a week-long wake and held a memorable funeral service at the church where I was serving, and friends from near and far came.
Looking back, it was more of a happy than sad occasion, seeing and meeting our Dad’s friends visiting and comforting us. Our parents were both pastors and served with several Baptist churches for almost 40 years.
In the early 70s, Dad was one of the coordinators of the Christ the Only Way (COW) Movement, and he went around the Romblon and Mindoro area as an itinerant evangelist, trainer, and organiser.
Part of his work was to teach pastors and church leaders how to implement the COW Movement programs, training core leaders in organising and leading LEGS (lay evangelist group studies).
I remember we lived in Roxas, Oriental Mindoro, where my older brother and I were born. Then we moved to Odiongan, Romblon, and Roxas City, Capiz, where our younger brother was born.
After that, our parents’ pastoral ministry journey brought us to Ajuy, Iloilo, in the early 80s, and later, they settled and retired in Concepcion, Ajuy’s neighbouring town.
Our Dad’s “retirement” was more of a retirement from the Social Security System to avail of his pension. Still, he never actually retired from His Master’s system, like many other ministers.
He continued to serve as a pulpit resource for churches that didn’t have a speaker, lead and guide younger ministers in the Northern Iloilo area, and help with the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches programs.
One fateful night in November 2002, after coming from a pastor’s retreat on an island off Concepcion, my Dad felt unwell and slumped on the floor. He had a stroke.
He survived after undergoing a craniotomy and treatment. However, he wasn’t able to recover fully. We all cared for him with the best of what we could do and what the Lord God provided us until he passed on over a year later.
Nevertheless, I had many episodes in my praying moments, asking for God to heal my Dad. I bargained with the Lord, saying, this man has served you for many years; didn’t he deserve to be well?
We all felt sad when he died, but despite the sadness and grief we were all experiencing at the time, I never cried. Even while my siblings, friends, and I carried and interred his coffin while the congregation sang “Til We Meet Again,” I didn’t shed a tear.
The next few months following our Dad’s burial, every time I missed and felt sad, I dwelled more on the fact that our Dad was enjoying living in the presence of His Master and Lord, with no more pain and no more sickness.
I feel happy knowing our Dad is enjoying his healed life, worshipping and rejoicing in Heaven. These truths have kept me from being sorrowful and prevented tears from welling.
Also, whenever I remember our Dad, I wonder what message he could have told me. He stayed with us for a year, but having lost his ability to speak, he can only nod or shake his head to say “yes” or “no”.
I called our Dad’s last year on earth the “silent year” because, from being a conversant and outspoken person, he was reduced to communicating by sign, and that silent year made me yearn and wonder what could have been his parting message for us and me.
As a kid, I marvelled at how Dad would speak on and on without a period to emphasise a preaching point. Unforgettable was one evangelistic night in Barangay (village) Malapaya, Sara, Iloilo.
Dad’s booming voice and relentless speaking drove the sound metre to its limit, cutting off the sound. His mastery of the “Robert’s Rule of Order” enabled him to participate well in any business meeting.
I recalled that the last time we were together was a week before the night he had a stroke.
He came to visit me at the city church where I worked. We had a brief conversation, and since I was about to leave and visit a church member, I asked him to come with me.
We took the jeepney (public transportation in the Philippines) and went to the Iloilo City jail to visit a church member, a mother who was detained for a minor fight with neighbours. Since I was the resident pastor, I took the pleasure of asking him to pray and minister with the church member.
So, in his “silent year”, the last year of his life, I never had the chance to have our usual conversation. I missed the arguments. I missed the challenges he would give us. I missed his wisdom, encouragement, and advice. These sad thoughts made me wonder but never drove me to tears.
One early morning in November 2004, eleven months after his death, I woke up with a dream, a very clear dream of our Dad. In that dream, I was helping him do his walking exercise across parallel bars.
While assisting him closely behind, ready to catch him if he fell, I heard him saying, “a thrill of hope” repeatedly.
I went to the kitchen to drink a glass of water, and since it was around 3:00 AM, I went back to sleep.
Then, I dreamed the same dream again. He was saying, “a thrill of hope” over and over again. I woke up. I remained in bed, wondering what the dream was about and the meaning of “a thrill of hope.”
As I lay motionless, I heard faintly from a distance the song “O Holy Night” being played on the radio. If you don’t know it, radio stations in the Philippines would start playing Christmas songs as early as September, especially in the early mornings.
O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
When the “O Holy Night” song reached the phrase “a thrill of hope”, I figured out immediately what my Dad was telling me in the dream.
Then I cried. I sobbed for a long moment as if all those tears that I had kept in the last 11 months were suddenly released, simultaneously comforted by the great assurance of the thrill of hope – Jesus Christ.
All the messages that I longed to hear from Dad were summed up in one phrase – “a thrill of hope.”
For me, that was the most profound Christmas gift I received. Thank you, Lord God!
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!