Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Saturday, June 2, 2018

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The stark emptiness of the prosperity gospel

I've had the pleasure of reading Everything Happens for a Reason: And Others Lies I've Loved largely because of Bill Gates's recommendation.1 The book is written by Dr. Kate Bowler, assistant professor of the History of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School. In 2013 she wrote  Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford University Press, 2013) where she explored the beginnings of the health-and-wealth teachings that remain entrenched in American religious life. These doctrines—mostly based on the premise that God's will for Christians is that they always hold financial blessing and physical well-being—have creeped in so many local churches, even in the Philippines. Prosperity gospel revolves around faith, prayer, positive thinking and speech, donations, and miracle crusades; by having these elements, people can persuade God to deliver them security and prosperity.

Dr. Bowler, in her deeply personal and affecting autobiography, reveals that these teachings are hollow when exposed to the scrutiny of suffering. This she realized when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. She would undergo chemotherapy and immunotherapy, would grapple with questions about her illness or whether she would live for her next cycle (on Wednesdays, in a hospital in Atlanta), and would question her faith in God.

The book attempts at being coherent; it is divided in nine chapters with a preface that begins with, "There's a branch of Christianity that promises a cure for tragedy. It is called by many names, but most often it is nicknamed 'prosperity gospel' for its bold central claim that God will give you your heart's desires: money in the bank, a healthy body, a thriving family, and boundless happiness." But cancer is hardly coherent. My patients tell me that suffering seems to go on forever; but it is a blur, a suspension of time, or, as Dr. Bowler wrote, "life interrupted." Amidst this mess,2 she takes us into her inner sanctum—her husband and son, her adorable friends, her colleagues at work (mostly pastors and would-be pastors)—and see that it is filled with a flurry of activity, laughter, sarcasm, and prayer. Central to her introspection is the belief that God was with her.

What would it mean for Christians to give up that little piece of the American Dream that says, "You are limitless"? Everything is not possible. The mighty kingdom of God is not yet here. What if 'rich' did not have to mean 'wealthy', and 'whole' did not have to mean 'healed'? What if being the people of "the gospel" meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough.

You don't read Everything Happens for a Reason for theology; if you do, you will be disappointed.3 I have a feeling that I will even disagree with the author on some points of Christian doctrine. However, you read it for its humanity. Dr. Bowler sounded like the charming, funny, self-deprecating, but strongly opinionated lady in church who made everyone feel welcome. Bill Gates wrote that she "has too much integrity as a writer to offer pat answers or magic solutions."

I have always found comfort in words. Books like these—along with friends and family—have been used by God to comfort me in my own suffering and in helping others in theirs. It goes without saying that the book resonates with me deeply in that as an oncologist I deal with cancer on a daily basis, both on professional and personal levels, the latter being more difficult. My father—a cheerful, kind, prayerful, and godly man—passed away two weeks ago. Gastroesophaeal junction cancer. I miss him every day.

The Bible, too, doesn't take suffering lightly. I agree with Tim Keller in his argument that Christianity offers the only unique, truthful, useful perspective on suffering:

... The Christian understanding of suffering is dominated by the idea of grace. In Christ we have received forgiveness, love, and adoption into the family of God. These goods are undeserved, and that frees us from the temptation to feel proud of our suffering. But also it is the present enjoyment of those inestimable goods that makes suffering bearable.

In another paragraph Pastor Keller writes that Christianity "empowers its people to sit in the mist of this world's sorrows, tasting the coming joy."

Like Dr. Bowler, I sigh and groan and anguish at the sight of suffering and pain. These lines moved me.

But I don’t want ice cream, I want a world where there is no need for pediatric oncology, UNICEF, military budgets, or suicide rails on the top floors of tall buildings. The world would drip with mercy. Thy kingdom come, I pray, and my heart aches. And my tongue trips over the rest. Thy will be done.

The God of the Bible promises another world free of sin and tears and conflict and cancer. Meanwhile, as we live in this fallen remnant of paradise, we sigh in hopeful helplessness and joyful sorrow: Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

1I'm subscribed to his blog: so smart and humane and kind!
2I can't find a better word.
3Timothy Keller's Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering (Penguin Books, 2013) is among the best, contemporary works on the subject of human suffering. You should read it.

Friday, June 1, 2018


My stash of diaries


On a sweltering morning in Marbel I took out the old, dusty boxes beneath what used to be my bed. Where was my stash of old journals, the very same diaries my father used to read secretly, much to my dismay, to which he told me, “They were good”? Looking for forgotten things in our St. Gabriel home was—and still is—laborious. My journals were no longer in the small Rockport shoebox I had put them in last year; they were already in the top cabinets, inside a carefully sealed plastic bag, its clean, difficult knot a reminder of my father’s obsessiveness to cleanliness and organization. Our caretaker, a close cousin of my mother, said, “Ah, your Tatay must have transferred them there.” (My inability to tie my shoelaces properly—at 30 years old!—must have frustrated him.)

I brought home with me two pocket journals—affordable Venzi notebooks with faux-leather covers—their acid-free pages already filled. The most recent had carefully written prayers, including one dated April 17 when I learned my father had an esophageal mass. I was almost certain it was malignant, but that did not keep me from asking the Lord for a miracle. No, the ink—my own concoction of 3/4 turquoise and 1/4 black Lamy—was not stained with tears, but tears were shed, albeit privately, whenever I moved my bowels or took long showers. My brothers are amused by the fact that I cry like someone from the upperclass—“daw sosyal”—while they caterwaul like the proverbial masang tao.

Tired, I placed the two journals in my collection inside the plastic bag in the top cabinet, my often careless scribbles safe from prying, curious eyes.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Congratulations, IM batchmates!

I'll miss the Department Graduation at New World Hotel today. I need to be with my family in Marbel to help with the transition: new routines, new roles, a new chapter without my father around. Here are some photos of my IM family. Congratulations to us!





The commute


Café Ilang-Ilang 2017

Café Ilang-Ilang 2017

Now...what to do?

batch 2017 internal medicine residents, pgh.

Morning charting

Morning charting




Afternoon discussions

I hate this pose.

Signing out of the wards--first year over

But I love these people.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018



With Nanay I share a fondness for ripe mangoes. A man delivered these to our neighborhood—sweet-smelling harvest from neighboring Tantangan, South Cotabato. I'll make fresh fruit juice. Maybe a smoothie.


Tuesday, May 29, 2018


The day after

The day after Tatay's burial, we went to Sarangani Highlands to tour close friends of my mother who visited Mindanao for the first time. Seeing the beauty of God's creation in our quiet, peaceful nook in Southern Philippines was a balm to our grief.


From the garden we saw Sarangani Bay.


Colorful shrubs grew in the garden.



Because of the heat, the "senior citizens" opted to stay inside the air-conditioned restaurant. From left: Uncle Rene, my mother, Auntie Cecil, and Tita Mimi.


We're grateful for these friends who spent time with us, giving us Christian comfort, during quite possibly the most difficult moment of our lives. From left: Uncle Rene and Auntie Cecil Jamison, Tita Hearty Cataluña, Auntie Liza Dayot, my mother, Tita Mimi and Uncle Nani Bañares. Photo was taken in our living room.


Monday, May 28, 2018


Still no words yet—we buried Tatay on Sunday morning—but there are many things I'm grateful for:

—Hearing my brothers and my mother give eloquent eulogies on Tatay's penultimate day before the funeral.

—Listening to tributes of his close friends who revealed hidden profiles of my father not apparent to us. My father's kindness and joy was something that they, too, will miss.

—The beautiful, gospel-centered preaching of Pastor Guilbert, who made use of the two nights and one day of funeral service as a series on the gospel, starting with sin, heaven, and how to be assured of one's salvation.

—Our church, Marbel Evangelical Fellowship, that hosted the funeral service. Our brothers and sisters in the faith have been sources of encouragement to us, demonstrating to us God's lovingkindness.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Tatay's speech

It's the little things that make me weep, the minutiae of life so permeated with Tatay's presence—such as this printed cue card. It bears the words he had uttered during Manong Ralph's thanksgiving party in May 15, 2011.



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