Today is Ash Wednesday.

And so, Lent begins.

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Weeks before Lent began, I was struggling with what I would give up and take up this year. Read articles, watched talks online and discerned about it and then, one line (can’t remember which article it was from) jumped out at me.

“If you’re not struggling [with your Lenten challenge], then you’re doing it wrong.”

That was disconcerting.

For a few years now, I’d given up meat for the whole of Lent.

And social media.

And most recently, rice.

It was challenging for maybe the first few days or week, but it was something I could do relatively easily. So does that mean I’m doing my Lenten challenge wrong?

Guess it’s time to up the ante…

So this is how my 2017 Lent will go:

GIVE UP

I will continue with the above but will add on 2 more items:

  1. Giving up unnecessary chats on whatsapp
  2. Giving up negative people and negativity

The latter was prompted by recent events and I was also challenged by this video by Fr Mike Schmitz:

To be unoffendable – now that’s a challenge indeed.

TAKE UP

Take up prayer – more consciously and intentionally.

Specifically,

  1. Go to Mass (everyday that it is available)
  2. Rosary prayer (everyday) – I can already forsee this as my main challenge in prayer…
  3. Read/listen to spiritual books/audio and the bible (daily readings and reflections on them) everyday
  4. Personal Adoration at the Chapel, at least once a week

 

Pretty confident about the giving up bit, not as much for the taking up though.

That’s why I am sharing it here…so that by the end of Lent, this will keep me accountable.

Gulp.

 

Well, Have a Blessed Lent all!!!

 

The Spirit is with me and I am one with the Spirit.

We made our way to White Sands without any problem. The sun was high above us and the sky clear when we got there. There is an open space where we could leave the car and from there it was a few minutes walk to their hut. Wearing shorts, the long grasses tickled our legs as we made our way on the short pathway of trampled weed to the now familiar wood-and-zinc hut. A few pieces of planks were strewn throughout parts of the pathway which makes for an easier trek, especially since it was heavily raining that morning and parts of the pathway were covered in puddles of water.

She warmly welcomed us into the hut, which was raised a few feet above the ground on wooden stilts. 6 beautiful smiling faces of her 6 young children welcomed us as we entered and sat down, excluding the youngest who was asleep in a swing-cradle. They were expecting us.

I still remember the first time I met them 3 months ago… This time, it was a belated visit as I had been silently meaning to go back there ever since that afternoon in November, even more so over the recent Christmas season…

Previously, they had been told to vacate the squatter area but as of this visit, they do not know yet when (if ever). Hopefully, at least not until the government-assisted housing for them is completed, or until they have a better place to go. Apparently, their neighbour, the elderly couple whom we also visited in November, had since been taken in by their enstranged children – hopefully for the better as the old man was paralyzed waist-down and his condition got worse prior to the move… In any case, that meant the population of White Sands is now down to 11 families from the previous 12.

Meanwhile, the children were busy entertaining themselves with the goods we brought with us. I vividly remember the children’s ages from my first visit but this time, I had a name to go with them. Then, 10-months-old would now be 1-year-old Florena and 3 y.o. Kissina, 4 y.o. Kissima, 6 y.o. Catalina, 10 y.o. Wilson, (I forgot the 11-year-old’s name so I’ll just refer to him as Owen for now) and, 17 y.o. Sandra.

We had brought with us, among necessities like rice and eggs, a box of assorted drinks and treats (jelly, sweets, biscuits, chocolate, candy, etc.) and this made for a great game of “finders’ keepers” among them – each hiding their “treasure” in their shirt, away from the hands of their other siblings. I was amused by their antics and at the same time saddened that they could not have these simple treats as easily as most children their age.

Owen was the one who was hiding away from us on our first visit – the one who punched the wall when Sandra said he was disabled [mentally]. Being able to have a closer look at him this time, indeed, he is more special than his siblings in a way but nothing a specialised approach to education cannot handle. Among all the assorted drinks (mostly carton drinks) in the box, he discovered a can of soft-drink and triumphantly exclaimed: “F&N!!!” but it was his brother, Wilson, who discovered the prize candy – a big heart-shaped rainbow-coloured lollipop, which he promptly licked (still with the transparent plastic wrapper on) which I figured was his way of marking possession, before promptly hiding it in his shirt.

The younger girls, Kissina, Kissima and Catalina, were equally adorable when they discovered treats they liked, but they were more often just giggling or laughing at the antics of the boys. Only Sandra, the oldest one of them there was silent, fiddling with some fancy plastic wrappers that the treats came in with her hands, and occasionally looked up at her siblings with a small smile forming over the sides of her lips. I could only wonder what must be going through her mind…

All this was happening in the background while we were catching up with their mother, Lia:

It was good to know that she had found a job at a coffee shop just walking distance from their home. She works from 8 to 5 and while she’s at work, Sandra is there to look after the younger kids. They are still waiting for the children’s identity cards, which they were told would be ready in a few months. Having that would greatly increase the chance of a proper education for the children.

“Love!” exclaimed a small voice, suddenly stealing our attention. It turned out to be one of the younger girls, probably Catalina or Kissina/Kissima (even their Mom had trouble telling who was whom), and she was referring to the big heart-shaped rainbow-coloured lollipop that Wilson discovered earlier, which was now in her hands. The plastic wrapper was off now and she was visibly enjoying the treat. It was then that I realised that instead of hogging the lollipop all to himself (as I had thought earlier), Wilson shared it with the rest of his siblings! Oh bless these children.

“I love you!” she then continued, as if to complete a sentence with her earlier word.

“Aaaaawww….”

We were suitably impressed but when my friend asked her to repeat what she had said, she just said “Snack” or “Candy”.

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We were praying together with the family before bidding our goodbyes when Florena woke up from her afternoon nap – promptly crying when she saw us until Wilson took her out from the swing-cradle and into his arms. In spite of that, it was, I believe, a fruitful and memorable visit.

No, it was more than that.

It was a second Hello.

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The 40-year-old woman warmly welcomed us into her home – an illegal small hut, made of wood and zinc, that was self-built on a small piece of land that was not their own. The interior was surprisingly spacey, airy, and bright, with sunlight streaming in through the front door and a small side window. A few of us opted to remain outside, fearing the hut, which was raised a few feet above the ground on wooden stilts, would collapse under our collective weight. This hut was 1 out of 12 others in the squatter area referred to as “White Sands”.

(In retrospect, we weren’t even supposed to be in this particular hut. There were about 20 of us, working young adults from our church community and the original plan was to bring food supplies and daily necessities for an elderly couple who lived in the hut in front of theirs; but a day before our planned visit, God put her in our path and so we decided to visit her as well – divine intervention I believe, as because of it, we got even more out of the visit than what we came to give. At least that is how I feel.)

6 pairs of innocent eyes looked at us with curiosity as we stepped inside their home. They belonged to the faces of her 6 beautiful young children, who were bright-eyed and obviously smiling at us, even though they seemed a little shy. They were all seated on the plastic mat that covered the wooden floor (their mother too joined them) so we got down and walked on our knees, shaking their hands and saying “Hi” to all of them as we also sat down. (We were from the same race and spoke the same language so communication was not a problem.) The eldest child there was a teenage girl, and she was holding her youngest sibling, a 10-months-old baby girl!

I sat next to the teen and asked for permission before I carried her baby sister in my arms. The baby didn’t have a shirt on and she had rashes around her neck because of the heat. She was pretty light to carry and a few of us took turns carrying her – until she cried, at which point we promptly returned her to the sister.

Questions upon questions kept popping into my head, as I tried to understand what I was seeing with my own eyes. We learned that the woman (the mother) had been unemployed for the past 2 months after her last contract finished so here she was, staying in a squatter area, raising these kids on her own as a single mom. How did they come to be here?

I got extremely curious especially about the ages of the children. Apart from the teenage daughter, most seemed to be around 10 years old and below. Since I was seated closest to the teen, I decided to engage her in conversation as their mother was talking with some others in our group.

Me: “So you’re the eldest?”

Teen: “No, I’m the second.”

Me: “Oh, where is the eldest?”

Teen: “She’s married and went with her husband.”

Me: “How old is she? And how old are you?”

Teen: “She is 18. I am 17.”

We tried to find out more about the older sister but it appears they have lost touch. She did not know where their older sister was.

I pointed to her younger brother sitting across from me. “And he is the third?”

“No, the third is disabled [mentally]…” she replied and pointed to the wall behind her, where no sooner had she said so, someone punched the wall behind her a few times.

BAM. BAM. BAM.

“That’s him”, she said, affirming his presence from behind the wall. (He was most likely in the kitchen area. A little later, he did walk past part of the kitchen that was visible from where I sat.)

“And how old is he?”

“11”

Once again, I looked to her younger brother sitting across from me. “So next is you, right? And how old are you?”

“10”, he replied happily.

Then I looked to the little girl seated to my right, who was leaning against her mother.

“And after him is her?” I asked their mother. “How old is she?”

“6, I think”, said the mother. “I need to check their card. I can’t quite remember.”

“And next is these two?” I asked, referring to another two little girls seated near her. They seemed about the same age so I couldn’t tell who was older. One had been holding on tightly to a plastic bag with a chocolate bar inside that was given to her by one of us. The other had a pacifier in her mouth.

“She’s 4 and she’s 3,” the mother pointed them out respectively.

“And the youngest is 10 months old.” I mentally listed them in my head. “10 months, 3, 4, 6, 10, 11, 17, 18 years old. 8 Children! Oh. My. Goodness.”

And these children – NONE of them go to school!!! Even the 17-year-old had stopped schooling to help look after the younger ones.

I find myself holding back tears as I pondered the future of these children. Flashbacks to when I was their age only made it worse. Education is important. Without it, how will the fate of this family turn around for the better?

Why are they not in school? Apart from financial reasons, apparently their mother did not have an identity card – it was as if she was a foreigner in her own country – making it difficult for her children to go to school too. Fortunately, on the day before we arrived, she had just received her identity card and applied for the government’s help for a proper house. Hopefully, things get better for this family in the near future. Including education for the children. Especially when they have been told to vacate the squatter area within this few months.

Soon it was time to leave, so we prayed together with the family before bidding goodbye. I gave their mother a hug as we left and she was visibly sobbing… I had tears in my eyes. It was with a heavy heart that we left them. I felt there was so many things I wanted to do to help that family. It was overwhelming, to say the least, and I cannot stop thinking about them.

Once again, I come to realise, that when giving and helping others in need, and by it bringing Christ to them and changing their lives (even if in a only very small way), without realising it, our lives too are changed by these encounters.

Abba Father, I know you are watching over that family. Please look after them. I take comfort in your words…

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”(Matthew 6:26)

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It was a little after 10 at night. After circling the block a few times, he parked the car and led us in prayer.

Then, we walked a little bit up the road where a few women were sitting around. He approached one woman and asked if we could talk with her. She said yes. We sat down.

He did most of the talking while I observed, half in disbelief of what we were doing. She wasn’t very receptive it seemed of what we had to say and promptly got up and left. He turned to me and asked, “Are we done? Do we continue?”

“I’m just following your lead,” I told him for what felt like the countless time that night.

We got up and walked further up the block – and came across 3 women seated near each other. All were wearing tshirts and jeans. Nothing scanty.

“Hi,” he began, addressing the nearest and youngest of the 3 women. Another woman, a more older one asked: “What are you guys looking for? A hotel?”

No no”, I replied and from that moment on, suddenly found myself in a conversation with her.

It turned out we were from the same village. We were of the same race and spoke the same language. She had been married and divorced twice. She has 3 children, all of whom now have their own families. They did ask her to come live with them but she did not want to be a burden to them. They give her money but it’s barely enough for her to pay rent and utilities. She works at a coffee shop nearby. (And when she was telling me all this, I kept thinking: No way is she a prostitute. She just works at a coffee shop and just happen to be chilling by the shophouses at almost 11 at night. Until she said:) “My children don’t know I’m doing this (read: prostituting)”

This was when it got very real for me. Here was this woman in front of me, who is just a year older than my own mother (!) and she was telling me how difficult her life was…how she ended up where she is presently. Who because she didn’t want to leave her house, did not want to burden her children, opted to live on her own and prostituting was how she earned a living – just waiting for death to arrive. She had been in prison 3 times, beaten and framed by “friends in the trade”.

I could no longer contain myself and started to shed tears as I told her that her children would never allow her to do what she was doing if they knew. “I am speaking as a daughter and if you were my mother”…and I asked if I could hug her. She seemed surprised at first but returned my embrace as I hugged her tight, feeling such remorse that such a life can happen to a mother…all the while the question “what if this was your mother?” kept repeating inside my head.

Here the 2 of us were, my friend and I, thinking that we were bringing Christ to them and changing their lives (which may be true) without realising that our lives would also be changed by these encounters.

We left her with the message that “God loves her and that her children care for her and so do we”. She grabbed my hand and held it to her cheeks when we said goodbye….

I was speechless and in tears as we walked back to the car. Never did I imagine, that someone my mother’s age, would be prostituting to make ends meet…

When you put faces and names and stories into the word “prostitute”, life as you know it, changes. It is an eye-opening experience for me and it certainly begs me to question myself: “What can I, a simple person, do for her? For others like her?”

I do not have one final and concrete answer. But I do know this. “This”, what we did tonight, cannot just be a one-time thing.

In the words of Mother Theresa: “If you cannot feed a hundred people, feed just one” & “not everyone can do great things but we can all do small things with great love”.

Now if Courageous showed what it was to be a Man of God, then War Room shows what it means to be a Woman of God, or more specifically, a wife and a mother in the family.

It portrays the story of a successful young woman (Elizabeth) whose encounter with an older woman (Clara) leads her to discover the right way to “fight” for her (then) strained marriage and in the process rights her relationship with God, her daughter and husband – and ultimately not only saves her marriage but also leads her husband and daughter to be closer to God as well.

I could totally relate some parts of the story to my own life.

Ever since I was young, and I realise it more as I grew up, Mom has always been THE Prayer Warrior in our family. Everyday, she would pray for our immediate family (dad’s job, our studies, our career, our health and everything that we are involved in) as well as extended family members and friends or anybody who has requested for her prayers. If there is anyone who knew how to pray, it is her.

As much as I’d like to say that I too have a prayer life as wonderful and intimate as Mom I haven’t quite reached that level yet. While I don’t have any qualms about spending as much time as I can doing church “work” (mainly involving youth and young adult ministry), I guess I would be more of a Martha than a Mary:

Luke 10:38-42

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.[a] Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” 

I never did understand why “Mary has chosen the better part” – if Martha was not doing the tasks (preparing for their meal it is assumed) then they would not be having their meal later, so surely her role was important.
So why is being Mary and spending time with the Lord (in prayer and building a personal relationship with him) more better/more important? Because if you have the Lord God on your side, nothing is impossible! Didn’t Jesus come to Mary’s defense when Martha wanted her to help with the tasks?
When I watched War Room and as I write this post, the realisation hit me. In the movie, Elizabeth and husband were both successful in their careers (being Marthas) but they weren’t (being Mary) “sitting at the Lord’s feet”/”listening to what He was saying” and their family nearly fell apart because of it. But when Elizabeth started praying for her family, that’s when everything slowly and surely changed for the better, even though it involved some difficulties along the way (“growing pains”?)

That is why Prayer is an important weapon – not because of the prayer per se, but because you are bringing God into the picture and handing over your cares and worries to Him and asking Him to fight for you.

What an assurance it would be to know that GOD is on your side (when you let him be!) and NOTHING can be against you! (Romans 8:31)

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While I was writing another post elsewhere, I had an epiphany. It’s not that I never knew it before but it was more of I just realised what exactly that meant.

What was it?

That I am a Daughter of God.

“I will be a Father to you and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:18 & 2 Samuel 7:14)

Again, it’s not that I never knew it before but it was more of I just realised what exactly that meant.

I used to struggle with relating to God as a Father because no human father is perfect. But that’s just it: God is NOT human. He is God! He is the Perfect Father there ever was, is and will be!

Think about it. What are the attributes of the Perfect Father?

For me, as a daughter, the perfect father would love me, protect me, be someone I can trust, be there to pick me up, wipe my tears, hold my hand and lift me up when I fall, be the one I can turn to anytime and is always there for me. And God is all that and so much more! How lucky are we to have God as our Father!?

Now remember all those times you’ve prayed for something – and never got them? As all good parents and good fathers would know, not everything your child asks from you is good for them (although of course the child is confident and determined that it is!) Isn’t it the same with our Perfect Father : That he only wants the best for us and will not give us what we think are good for us simply because it is not the best for us???

I mean WOW! If you look at it that way, life just makes a whole lot more sense doesn’t it?

For all the things I have prayed for, there is one in particular that God still has not answered. I realise now that I had been praying wrongly, asking selfishly thinking that is best for me. I understand now. Necessarily, this will change the way I pray: instead of asking for this and that, I should be asking for God’s best for me.

Thank you Heavenly Father, for bestowing the privilege to us, to me, mere human, to call you Father, my Perfect Father. I trust you and will await your best for me. 🙂

Tonight is that night.

On the morning of Holy Thursday, I was preparing myself for the approaching Triduum when the reality struck me : that Christ was betrayed (by someone who is close to him – Judas, one of his 12 chosen disciples) on Holy Thursday.

Odd as it may sound, I never really saw Holy Thursday in it’s fullness until this time round.

Yes, I always knew that Holy Thursday was the night when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and he was arrested that night. Yes, I always knew before that he had the Passover meal in the Upper Room with his disciples and he washed their feet.

FACTS. Head knowledge.

It was no coincidence that on Palm Sunday, I watched the movie “The Gospel of John”

…and all the Gospel readings during Holy Week, Holy Thursday and Good Friday was from the Gospel of John. During mass, the movie was playing in my head as the Gospel was proclaimed.

Thanks also to this article on Holy Thursday by Jimmy Akin, I didn’t just attend mass on Holy Thursday this time. I felt the sorrow of the disciples when “As I Have Done For You” was sung by the choir. A beautiful hymn by Dan Shutte puts into song all the last words/advice/teachings by Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper. Heart-wrenching at parts especially verse 2. And consoling as well.

After the mass and a quick dinner, I went to another parish to spend time at the Altar of Repose. In this parish, the Altar of Repose was set at the chapel at the back of the church so I had to pass through the darkened church and approaching the altar where the cross was covered, I shuddered seeing the tabernacle doors opened and it was empty. Again, it dawned on me why this is so: Jesus had been taken away.

Reflecting on this and the song above, I really felt the emptiness; that Christ had left. It was akin to the feeling of having lost a person dear to you. It made me recall my grandparents who both passed away a few months ago. It truly felt heart-wrenching.

After midnight, still in the mood for reflections/contemplation, our faith group watched the Passion of Christ and again it dawned that what was portrayed in the film was happening at that very moment. Jesus had been arrested – and was then being persecuted, tortured and charged a criminal. And on the morning of Good Friday, he would be sentenced to Crucifixion.

And it was his fellow Jews who wished this upon him. How could one person (what more his own brethren!) wish for another to be CRUCIFIED? The horror!

And yet, that is what happened.

And this is what happens when we sin. For Christ died for our sins.

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