I got introduced to the study of living things with some sense of reservation. I always thought that organic existence ought to be left alone un-dissected. This all changed when my teacher demonstrated a riveting theatrical demeanor towards the living universe. His love for Biology was akin to the surge of an epidemic: our class got hooked. I was captivated by this man’s torrid passion for his academic fanaticism. His seriousness was ridiculously inspiring. He demanded utmost respect for all his acolytes each time his botanical cathedral chimed for learning.
I was his number one disciple. My notes turned obsessively verbatim. I was so enamored by his pedagogical prowess that my personal delight in the scrutiny of protoplasm grew with equal vigor.
One morning, all classes were being dismissed to proceed to the gym to cheer for the basketball team. While all classes were quickly emptied, ours remained fastened to our sacred subject. He warned our class not to veer any of our attention to the distraction of student traffic converging along the corridors. I was completely compliant with this edict for I was his unflinching loyalist.
One millisecond though, my eyes wandered away from the blackboard while glancing at some rowdy pedestrian. His highness, immediately roared his thunder, leaped from his throne and in a single bounce, both his hands and scepter were on my collars. He uprooted me out of my chair, dragging me towards the door while hoarsely shouting: “If that’s where you want to be, then scram … run outside and don’t look back!”
It felt like I was thrown into some demilitarized zone left with no option but roam unto oblivion. I was in severe shock on what just transpired. It took me about a week to wiggle past the dust of my incoherent fate.
I never had the strength to ask my teacher what got into him to publicly demonstrate such an epic ignorance of my deep allegiance. The classes ran as usual but I merely attended the sessions with my soul parked and my countenance anchored somewhere else.
Biology grew pale on my list, as my weakened attention drifted with complacency, not even willing for any exchange of any further affection towards the study of living monsters.
Why must I entrust my thoughts to a heartless guru who knows nothing but tadpoles and bad foils.
No return. No exchange.
A song of ascents.
Out of the depths I cry to you. O LORD;
O LORD, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.
If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins,
O LORD, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness;
Therefore, you are feared.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the LORD
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
O Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.
What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?
Matthew 16:26 NIV
The honest recognition of human travail longs for the integrity of our eleventh element. In the midst of our tumultuous conditions, God calls us for an exchange. The kind of transaction that he offers defies the conventional meaning of human calculations. It is an offer of trade between the benevolent God and for only those who are willing. For lack of a better description, it is simply a Great Exchange: an incredible form of redemption from sufferings.
The cry of the Psalmist reveals deep pain: “Out of the depths I cry to you. O LORD.” The life of faith does not seek to hide nor diminish the realities of pain and suffering. The way out of darkness always presupposes an honest accounting of how dark one’s gloaming has been. Persons who are in denial of their own duress are never led to the doors of freeing light. It is crucial to face one’s painful experiences in order to be able to cry out the precise volume of its depressing depths. It is towards this plea that we are called to weep out to the LORD.
A believer who cries out to the LORD with honest integrity, hopes upon the personal attendance of God to all who seek his solace. It is towards his mercies that this dependence is leaned on. Indeed, there is not a single person who deserves God’s attention, but because of mercy, He turns his eyes towards the lowly and hears them.
The bulwark of sin in our lives causes us to recoil in fear of others. Those whom we have formerly entrusted have betrayed us. Those who trusted us, we have denounced. Apart from the mercies of forgiveness, bitterness runs the course of our lives. How can our affections be restarted to trust those whom we deem untrustworthy? Sin stains our relationships with deep dark indelible ink. Apart from forgiveness, all wrongdoers, including us, are doomed. But God shows up with forgiveness. He offers himself to settle the injustice that cannot be undone by any human judge. He throws away the record books and replaces it with one that lists those who have been pardoned without any record of wrongs.
While this recognition takes place, God ushers us to apply the call to exchange. Whatever weakness, whatever ineptness, whatever malignancy, etc., all such personal incompetence is being ushered into the trade market of God’s grace: His strength for all our weakness. The ancient meaning of waiting speaks of a definitive exchange between two unequals. The benevolent bestows favor towards a humble subject. God calls us to a proper accounting of our prevailing pains and in the midst of all our agony we are to cry out for his help.
The posture of waiting seeks the dawning of sure hope. Waiting upon the LORD, intentionally focuses upon the reliability of God to turn things around, because of his unfailing and loyal love. The Great Exchange is grand due to the comprehensive nature of its intent: full redemption.
We cease defining ourselves while turning to our Creator for our true identity. God does not save us from retail pain. He sent his Son to provide full redemption from all our delusions. When the Great Exchange takes place, we are forever changed. He answers our prayers by being the answer Himself.
We are no longer mere wanderers but redeemed people, set apart and adopted with God’s enduring favor.
I was visiting Manila, still reeling from the cataclysm of a friend’s suicide. It happened just a week prior to my arrival from Dallas. He suffered from asphyxiation; the trauma of losing his boyfriend snapped his lifeline. I will be flying back in a week to conduct the funeral service as was requested by his family. I was at a loss for both words and meaning.
Being both a pastor and friend to a lot of folks can be truly enervating. One week of reconnection seemed the equivalence of seven. I was re-packing for home when Bryan called at around 1 am. He just needed to talk. The abysmal loss of his eight-year old son on Christmas Day, took his marriage cascading down in a spiral.
I was booked at central hotel, and it was convenient to call the appointment downstairs. I spent about two hours clarifying the need for deep empathy in what he and his wife were going through. Our session ended with his summary: “ It is just so difficult to enter her dark world. She stays there, and tries to pull me into her death-trap … I can’t help but rush out quickly.” I assured him of my prayers, while hinting my need for desperate sleep.
Walking towards the elevator, I noticed a young gentleman, half-slouching and half-lying on a bar chair. There were about fifteen bottles of beer on his table, cradled by the putrid smell from his ashtray. Spotting us, he propped himself up and bawled my friend’s name: “Bryan! Bryan … my goodness! … it is so f…. ing late and you’re still up with your boyfriend? Long time, no see, dude … What’s up with you, man? Who’s this f … ing hunk, anyway?”
Bryan was obviously embarrassed and stunted from speech. The stranger was his high school classmate. He was the designated watchdog that night for some big shot foreign executives who were ferrying high-class women to their clients. He was directing the traffic, all night long. Obviously exasperated and drunk, he was merely intending for some company. He pursued his fulmination towards me: “I’ve never met you before … Hey Bryan, would you mind me stealing your boy for the night?” Bryan was now pulp-red, when I spoke: “I am not Bryan’s boyfriend, I am his pastor.” It was as though some kryptonite detonated. He dashed towards the exit only to return, cursing Bryan for not stopping him from his miserable rap of ignorance. “Pastor, forgive me, I did not know … Bryan, for Christ’s sake, he is your pastor, man … uhh, Pastor, you see … I was once born-again too.”
He ordered coffee for all three of us. He shared why he defected from the faith with a clear introduction: “Your God, plays favorites. I used to like him, but he just chooses whom to bless and I am certainly not one of those!” I just listened for about an hour of anecdotes on darkness, desert, and dungeon. It was rather amazing that I was able to keep up with his narrative, considering my droopy state. Sensing perhaps my courtesy in lending him my undivided attention, he asked what brought me to the city.
I shared my itinerary, which somehow led to a disclosure of my unresolved grief pertaining my friend’s suicide. I was surprised by his calm while he listened with depth. He then interjected: “I think I catch his drift. I am not really gay, as in happy. I slog through a melancholic river. I have had a thousand and one affairs with every stud in this city and they all seem to facilitate cascades to rapids of dole. It is just a matter of time, I guess, before one hits rock-bottom.” He paused, and with poignancy, he continued: “You are married I suppose and each time you make love, a propulsion of life begets you. Inversely, I don’t know why a dagger hits me each time I try that with my lovers … I die a thousand times.” “That’s why, your friend’s fate does not surprise me at all. It happens to me all the time.” “I keep on praying for rescue but I guess I am not one of his favorites.”
With a prompt of urgency, I interrupted his poignant exegesis: “Benny, I flew all the way from Dallas to hear from God what I needed to understand. I never had you on my schedule, but it seems like you were on His. Could it be that you have remained precious in his sight, for him to book this conversation to lead off?”
We talked about the possibilities of hope amidst darkness among others. It was close to 4:30 AM when I got dismissed. At the hotel’s door, Bryan bid goodbye saying: “the deep empathy of soul, I witnessed tonight ignited my redemption …”
Well, salvation for Bryan and Benny, I guess … but it was actually, more for mine. Redemption sounds like a deep theological term but it is nothing more, nothing less but an incredible trade: all our weaknesses surrendered, in exchange for God’s awaiting strength.
Thousands of feet above, huddled within the clouds, I peered down the gray-scaled earth, smiling with thoughts of expectancy through all the vast, yet truly puny chaos.
God does play favorites.
His calendar gets filled with their appointed schedules: exchanging grand mercies for piddling morsels.