Sunday, 25 December 2011

Why should we celebrate Christmas? (part 2)

A bit different to any of my other paintings, this is an attempt to capture yesterday's poem in illustrated, if rather abstract, form.

I realise I have now posted three blog entries in as many days which is probably a bit excessive ... but we are going away for a few days from tomorrow so it'll probably be a while before I post again.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Why should we celebrate Christmas?

Usually even if I was inspired to write another Christmas poem on Christmas eve it would be a little late for the Christmas cards. This year, not reliant on post and surrounded by inspiration I offer you this second Christmas poem.

Today, on day 9 of the Christmas novena, particularly in the light of the destruction of typhoon Sendong, the homily asked: why should we continue to celebrate Christmas? Why all this joy in the midst of all this suffering?

The reflections in it were the initial inspiration for this poem. Later in the morning, thanks to a friend who teaches in a school on an Indian reservation in the US I was reading some truly horrifying statistics, which, coupled with the experience of inequality here, and  the thoughts already floating round in my head inspired verse 2. (

In the midst of very visible poverty here, verse three speaks of a very different kind of pain, which is no less real, and of which my own experience has been no less real either. Some of those who find themselves struggling with difficult situations and finding it hard to see the light of the end of the tunnel are also very much in my mind right now.

Yes, we should still celebrate Christmas: not by getting into debt, not by pushing and shoving in a supermarket queue, not by competing with the neighbours for the best display of decorations, not by wasting half the food we have stocked up as if for a siege; but by choosing to stand alongside those who need to see that flickering starlight.

I hope the glimmer of hope that shines in the last verse is shining for all of those who are remembered in the preceding verses. I wish them all a very Merry Christmas.

As the flood waters rise higher
Washing lives and hopes away
Alone surrounded only by ghosts
No chance to go, no reason to stay
When all you had is gone
What is the point of this Christmas day?

With no education, no healthcare, no job
When you dream of what could have been
In the midst of a land of riches
Where poverty and despair go unseen
As one of the have-nots in a land of haves
What can this Christmas celebration mean?

For those trapped in a situation
From which there seems no way out
When you see more cruelty than kindness
Even your own worth you start to doubt
If life is a place of anxiety and pain
What is this Christmas feast all about?

Let us still celebrate this Christmas time
To promise a glimmer of hope is in sight
Because this is why the Christ child came
Saying I want to be with you in your night
He came to the destitute, the deserted, the distraught
So let this Christmas shine as a fragile ray of light

Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas in our hearts

Last Sunday we were invited to join Fr Mac at the Christmas party he organises for the children from his feeding programme in the city streets. After the Misa de Gallo at 4.30am we headed straight down to Lourdes parish to meet the volunteers and scholars from the parish, load up the truck and head off to set up the gym where the party was held.

With songs, games, food, Christmas presents from Santa and distribution of  "bundles of joy" sacks of rice and other food stuffs we got home at 2pm, by which point we had been out for 10 hours and were very hot and tired!

It was loud and mildly chaotic (all be it in a highly organised way) but a really joyful celebration of Christmas. For the rest, I think the photos probably speak for themselves ...

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The gift of Christmas

We haven't sent any Christmas cards this year ... so please don't take it personally that you haven't received one! Instead, this blog post brings you all my best wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

After adventures on Eurostar struggling through snow to get back to the UK for the last couple of Christmasses, it has been very strange this year to be preparing for Christmas in tropical heat. In spite of all the Christmas decorations, carols and parties, it somehow hasn't quite felt like it can possibly be nearly Christmas when it is this hot! It is this strangeness which was the initial inspiration for this year's Christmas poem and the accompanying picture.

The gift of Christmas

As Christmas time approaches
And the cold, dark nights draw in
Curled up beside the flickering firelight
Watching snowflakes begin to fall

In a swirling of frosty blue
And dazzling white
Comes the warm golden glow
Of the gift of Christmas

The warmth of a fire of burning love
Of a comforting spirit of hope
Wonder and joyfulness
Warming hearts and souls

Cradled in a manger in a stable
Cradled in a heart full of love
Is the bright warm flame
Of the gift of Christmas

As Christmas time approaches
And the sun still beats down hard
Stretched out beneath the canopy of shadows
Watching palm trees rustle and wave

In a haze of dreamy yellow
And fiery red
Comes the cool silver light
Of the gift of Christmas

The freshness of a breath of inspiring change
Of an unsettling spirit of challenge
Newness and vitality
Refreshing hearts and souls

Cradled in a manger in a stable
Cradled in a heart full of energy
Is the cool refreshing breeze
Of the gift of Christmas

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Preparing for Christmas

When we arrived at DBTC back at the beginning of October, the Christmas tree was already up in the community room, so I guess you could say they have been preparing for Christmas ever since; but over the last week or so getting ready for Christmas has begun in real earnest.

We have welcomed three sets of visiting carol singers from different Salesian communities: the Seminarians from Lawaan, Pasil youth centre and Boys Home, Liloan. 

I'm not sure exactly what we were expecting: half a dozen children with a CD singing Away in a Manger fairly tunelessly perhaps ... but what we got was a carefully choreographed spectacle of singing, playing instruments and dancing.

Pasil could probably claim to have the best singers, but Boys Home may have won on showmanship (and the fact that in spite of my cringing when the recorder group initially appeared, they turned out to be really quite tuneful.)

Above all, in the case of all those we have seen, they sang, danced and played with a real sense of fun, laughter and joy.

Then, this weekend, the parties have begun, starting on Friday afternoon with the TVED Christmas party, and, as we have come to expect: TVED certainly knows how to throw a party! Food, a Christmas hat competition and lots of games filled the afternoon.

Attendance of the party was not optional, nor was active participation: but then again: why wouldn't you want to join in when life is this much fun! What makes everything at TVED so special: parties included, is the sense of community and the way everyone is included - and not just included, but obviously really wanting to be there and be part of it. The other two parties this weekend, the staff party this afternoon and Fr Mac's party for the street children from the feeding programme tomorrow have a lot to live up to: but will probably have a joy all of their own.

It hasn't all just been partying though: we have also been preparing for Christmas by taking part in the Misa de Gallo Novena, a Philippine tradition to attend dawn mass for each of the last nine days before Christmas. So we have been crawling out of bed in time to be in the chapel for 4.30am: only to find yesterday that by the time we arrived it was standing room only and as well as the crowds inside the church, there were people listening by loudspeaker outside too.

An advent sacrifice, certainly, a form of fasting different from anything I have experienced before, but, despite the early hour and tiredness, these masses are proving to be a real source and celebration of joy: a genuine preparation for the celebration of Christmas. Giving something up, yes, but not in order to be miserable or to suffer, rather in order to share a greater joy.

Monday, 12 December 2011

What we believe

I apologise now that this post is longer than many I have written. I won't be offended if you don't read to the end (apart from anything else, I won't know!)

I have often been struck, when reciting the creed that it jumps directly from Jesus' birth, to his death and resurrection. If this is the key statement of Christian belief, I wonder why it misses out the whole life of the person of Christ: Christian, after all means follower of Christ - and presumably that doesn't just mean to follow him in birth and death, but in the way his life was lived. 

Could it be that in writing the creed, the life of Jesus was just a bit too challenging for everyone to agree on? And ever since we have maintained our statement of beliefs as something which emphasises the divine person of Jesus, and limits his humanity, because to state our belief in what he said and did as a human, as one like us, means living life as something radically different to the dominant powers of the empire, an empire which it is all to easy to want to be a part of, an empire of domination, of exclusion and of wealth.

Since being here we have prayed the creed every evening, which has led me to reflect on what is my creed. I know it took years of church councils to agree on the text we have, and I am not setting myself up as an alternative authority, but here are some of the fruits of my thoughts, which I hope might generate some thoughts from others too.

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
I believe in God who is and only can be Love, and whose power is found in his willingness to be weak

Creator of heaven and earth,
Who as creator, rested on the seventh day to allow us to be co-creators with him. Our creator who created humanity as in his infinite Love he desired to exist in relationship with us

and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
And in Jesus Christ, his son, our brother, making us sons too; our Lord who washing his disciples feet identified himself not with the Lords but with the servants

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit of a God who wished to join us in our humanity

born of the Virgin Mary,
Born of an unwed teenage mother, the lowest of the low in society, born into an occupied territory under a violent regime

Who chose as his friends an unlikely mismatched group of individuals from whom he built a community, a group of people with problems and faults and failings but who, inspired by love, were capable of living and sharing God’s gift of love with others;
Who lived alongside  society’s outcasts, creating a new vision in which those who were excluded were drawn in and human constructed barriers between people were broken down by his very humanity;
Who offered an alternative way to build community and rediscover identity, by celebrating the vitality of diversity rather than uniting against difference;
Who spent time with the unloved, and the unlovely and the seemingly unlovable, showing through his own life and actions that God’s universal love includes them too;
Who offered freedom to those who were trapped: trapped by pain, or illness, or hunger; trapped by a litany of religious rules they could never live up to; trapped by the oppression of an occupying force, by the struggle of knowing how to respond and by the cycle of violence from which there can seem to be no way out; trapped by their own haunting past or fears of their future; and who, in his offer of freedom, brought comfort and a new hope; but also a new challenge to those who chose to follow his way.
Who followed a path of non-violent resistance to challenge the injustice and exclusion in society and in doing so was willing to be vulnerable and to live his life of love to the very end
Who called and challenged those who believed in him and followed him, to live as he lived, a call and challenge which continues to resound through the centuries to his followers of all times and places.

suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Suffered at the hands of an occupying force, and of religious leaders whose obsession with the rules of religion allowed them to forget the key principle of compassion, and of a crowd who were unable or unwilling to stand up against society’s prevailing view

was crucified, died and was buried;
Was crucified, the painful and humiliating death of those who challenged the reigning order, as he did, albeit non-violently,
died in isolation and abandonment and was buried

he descended into hell;
He descended into hell, thereby destroying the only remaining place where God had been absent and making his Love truly and eternally universal

on the third day he rose again from the dead;
On the third day he rose again from the dead, meeting his disciples, and us, in our daily realities and real lives

he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
He ascended into heaven, And, the slaughtered lamb, is seated at the centre of the throne of God the Father all loving, fully revealing the true nature of God: revealed not in strength but in weakness, not in kingship but in suffering with the lowest in society.

from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead, not by human standards, but, in keeping with the true nature of a God who can only love, a judgement that says there is nothing you can do to make me love you more, and nothing you can do to make me love you less.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
I believe in the Holy Spirit, which burns as a fire or as an ember in every human being; a spirit of consolation but also an unsettling Spirit of challenge, calling each one to action in a life guided by love; a Spirit who pours out eternal love, in turn inspiring us to love one another

the holy catholic Church,
The holy catholic, universal Church, flawed and divided, which has often lost its way and yet has passed down God’s gospel of love through the generations, and is the community in which we are called to live out our lives of love together; to live out our faith which only makes sense in relationship with others

the communion of saints,
The communion of saints, all those, known and unknown, named and unnamed, who have tried to put into practice, however imperfectly, the little they have understood of the Gospel

the forgiveness of sins,
The unconditional forgiveness of all our sins by an eternally loving God, and the unsettling call to forgive others, even those who have caused our deepest, seemingly unhealable wounds,

the resurrection of the body,
The resurrection of the body, as a daily reality of transfiguration as we journey with a loving God who restores us at each fall

and life everlasting.
And eternal life, not as something to be looked forward to, but as something to be lived, here and now in the present moment, the only moment which truly counts, and one which should be lived to the full.


Thursday, 8 December 2011

More insights into TVED

So far, I have been very impressed by what I have experienced at TVED. Admittedly there are minor  frustrations: like the time keeping being somewhat flexible on occasion, but the whole set up and way things are run seems much healthier than the results-pressured, targets-driven, nothing-counts-but-academic-lessons, look-out-for-yourself-because-its-all-about-the-individual, environment that a lot of young people in the UK are forced to grow up in. Here, the ethos that education is about the whole person, and that the students need an environment where they can develop socially and spiritually, is not just lip-service, it is really lived. 

This poem tries to capture something of TVED's environment and ethos, as I have experienced it so far.

Teaching and learning, a space to grow
Values offered and shared
Education that encompasses the whole
Dare to expect each other to give their all

Time given, not counted
Voices found, and raised in song
Engage and enjoy
Dreaming and living the dream

Together, united in love and God
Vocation is more than a practical skill
Each other as part of one community
Doing the ordinary, extraordinarily well

Training for life
Vitality of being fully alive  
Energy of new opportunities
Doing, living, being

Sunday, 4 December 2011

A day in the life

While we are here we are working at TVED (or the Technical Vocational Education Department), designing and teaching the English and Maths courses which form part of the programmes for the students here. TVED counts about 220 students, following courses in Wood and Furniture Technology Industrial Electricity, Mechanical Technology, and Handyman Skills, all of whom we teach. The Handyman skills course is a three month programme, the other courses last three semesters (of about five months each), two at TVED and a third of On the Job training (OJT).

For the students at TVED, this is no soft option: their time here is an all-encompassing programme, which keeps them on site for 11 hours a day, six days a week. Learning vocational skills is of course an important part of the programme, but it is by no means all they do: and there is no sense that the other parts of the programme: maths, and English, theology and ethics, hobbies, PE, chores, prayers and mass, are any less important. This is not just a place to learn a trade; it is place to learn how to live.

Hopefully this video gives some idea of life as a student at TVED.