Writing

What’s Next?

I’ve been telling my friends that I plan to quit music school soon.

To be honest, I always knew I was going to drop out. A degree was never the objective. Instead, I enrolled because I wanted to learn…or at least, that’s the press release. The real answer needs deep introspection, and introspection needs time that’s probably better spent studying for Solfeggio or practicing Czerny.

Time. That’s probably one of the biggest reasons I’m planning to leave UST: music school takes up so much time. And I knew this, my piano teacher repeats to me when I show up to her studio looking run down the nth week in a row. And I did know this. I knew that school would take up time, effort, that I would lose Saturdays and sleep and a whole host of other things.

I also know what a parametric EQ does and how it works. But I still struggle to use it on Garageband.

There’s a lot of difference between knowing and knowing. The latter, I guess, you can only gain through experience. I’ve been in UST for nearly two full school years. If I stick to my plan—and I don’t know if I will—then I won’t last a third. I haven’t made up my mind to quit, but I’m nearly there. The only thing holding me back from definitively making that decision is that I am just as uncertain about why I should leave as I am about why I started in the first place.

I know why I should go. I should go because I keep turning down gigs for this. I should go because I don’t get to sleep much. I should go because there are ministry opportunities that I miss out on because I’m in school on Saturdays (and what nobler thing is there to leave the conservatory for than church?). I should go because, ironically, music is taking time away from music.

But is it really?

Someone asked me—I forget who; maybe it was a lot of someones—what I planned to do after I quit UST. I think the exact phrasing was, “What’s next?” At first, I found the question odd, but then I realise that I have always had something going on. I can’t remember the last time I had Saturdays free; probably back in university, but even then I’m convinced I was probably doing something. For an introvert homebody, I don’t like staying home: I always need to be doing. And, for at least six years and maybe more, that doing has had to do with music.

Back to the question of why I enrolled in music school to begin with. The easiest answer would be that I simply traded ST for UST. The band broke up the year I got in, and school conveniently took up all the hours I would spend rehearsing in Marikina, week after week. If I’m less kind to myself, maybe I’ll even admit that getting into the conservatory was me trying to prove a point: I got in on the strength of two songs I wrote and produced all on my own, no bandmates or audio engineers or “hitmakers.” In that last, horrible year, I remember constantly feeling like I had to prove I was worth the band staying together.

My ahia would say this sounds about right, but they don’t to me. I know they’re correct, somewhere, but like I said before there’s a difference between knowing and knowing. I know what I know isn’t quite it.
I plan to at least finish my four freshman AppMaj requirements (Solo, Duo, Trio, Quartet) and my piano minor before I go. If I go. When I go. To be honest, even now, with Saturday in just a few hours and my dread of it growing, I’m still not 100% sure if I should leave or if I should stay. My old university professor—also a musician, also a current music student—shared a post that went, “When you feel like stopping, think about why you started.”

But what if I don’t remember why I started? Or else, what if there’s nothing to remember? What if I never really had a reason, a real reason; I did this because it was a convenient “next,” because it felt like the logical thing to do, considering my “dreams.” I don’t even know what my dreams are anymore, but that’s something for another time. Or maybe it isn’t, because that’s why I’m writing this to begin with. Because I feel like I’ve lost my way, and now I don’t know where to go or what to do or why I’m even here.

Maybe the harshest truth is this: I knew what I was getting into, what I was going to give up. What I didn’t know then, that I might know now, is that maybe I wasn’t so willing to count that cost. The “self-care” and “self-love” posts on Facebook say that it’s okay to take time out for “mental health,” and I think they’re right, but when is it self-care and when is it just laziness? When is it me being soft on myself?

When do I face myself, look in the mirror and admit that maybe I just don’t have it in me?

I don’t know. All I know is that there are open mics I want to play, dance classes I want to join, ministry opportunities I want to take, and goals I still keep in view, even as I wonder if I’m ever going to hustle hard enough to reach them. There is a Google Keep account with an album’s worth of songs, and a constantly moving target for when I want to release them. There is a sound I keep chasing that I don’t ever know if I’ll be good enough to make.

There’s a weight in my chest I can’t shake, that keeps me awake even after my homework is done.

There’s a wish, faint but if I’m honest getting stronger by the day, to close my eyes and maybe never open them again.

There’s a difference between knowing and knowing. Perhaps that’s why I stay. Because for all of these things I know, I don’t know the answer what’s next.

And I don’t know if I ever will.

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“The Faith That Lives In You Also.” (A Family Testimony)

But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.

Exodus 20:6

My paternal grandmother passed away in 2014, but she remained a constant presence in my life, even after her death. More specifically, it was the unforgiveness I had for her that haunted me.

To say that my grandmother–Amah–and I had a difficult relationship is an understatement. Though I was her first grandchild, and long-awaited granddaughter, I often felt that she was disappointed in me. After all, my father was the black sheep of the family, and with my hot temper, emotional nature, and tendency to talk back, I reminded her a lot of her son. As I grew older, I would notice this more and more. Playful scolding little by little turned into disapproving lectures on whatever facet of my behavior she was displeased with that day. I grew to expect, and resent, the constant sermons, which would often escalate into arguments as I would try to defend myself from her claim that I was becoming more and more like my dad. At one point, my Amah even told my mother to be careful not to love me too much, because I might hurt her the way my father had hurt my grandmother.

Looking back, I can clearly see that these were the actions of a hurting heart, and that Amah was simply doing her best to help me and my mother. However, at the time, all I felt was rejection. My relationship with my father was also quite bad, and I was terrified of ending up like him, so it hurt every time my grandmother brought up that possibility. Her certainty felt like a vote of no confidence, and I clearly saw the distance between mother and son being mirrored in her actions towards me.

Things got a little better when I became a Christian at the age of thirteen. My grandmother was a devout follower of Christ, and had served as a missionary in refugee camps when she was younger. She had such a heart for the poor and the lost that she bought land to build into a farm, church community, and Christian retreat house called The Lord’s Garden, growing fruit and flowers there that she sold to fund the ministry. Until the end of her life, she was praying fervently for the salvation of her friends and relatives, admonishing them on her deathbed to come to Christ. Amah was passionate about the Lord, and it was her long-cherished wish that at least one of her grandchildren would carry on her legacy of faith. I remember many conversations she had with my mother where she talked giddily of her belief that one of my cousins had received the calling to serve God. Her joy at that prospect stood in stark contrast to the fear and reluctance she often seemed to have when talking about me. I have no doubt that she prayed for me often, and admit that she had good reason to–the years immediately before and after I became a Christian were turbulent ones, as God was working to tame my rebel heart. She seemed comforted somewhat by the fact that I was now actively going to church and being discipled, but then again my father himself had been a preacher in the mountains before he’d backslid.

Once I got into college, landing a scholarship to a good university and racking up academic awards–contrast from my messy high school years–Amah seemed to become less cautious when it came to her treatment of me. Around that time as well, having undergone my church’s “Victory Weekend” and constant discipleship from my spiritual family, I was also trying to make an effort to understand her better and act more loving and forgiving towards her, hoping that my emotions might follow my actions. The result of this was that we managed to make a sort-of peace before her death, even having long conversations where I spoke to her about my faith journey. She seemed satisfied that my walk with God was rooted in more than just appearances, and in the year before she passed away, she seemed almost proud of me, while I also thought that I had forgiven her.

Little did I know, I was still nurturing the hurt and bitterness in me from those years of being held at a distance, and when she died–a few months after my father, her son, had suffered a massive stroke that he struggled to recover from–all that hurt came pouring out. From a bubbly, if emotionally erratic, people-person, I suddenly found myself becoming withdrawn and depressed, prone to fits of anger, fear, panic, and sadness that seemed to come out of nowhere. It felt like my grandmother’s old predictions were coming true, as this shift in personality started to take its toll on my professional and personal life, such that I was nearly fired from my first job–where I had been and still was a star performer–because my officemates found me, emotionally, too difficult to work with. Finally, I was diagnosed in April of 2017 as having dysthymia, also known as “persistent depressive disorder.”

Living with dysthymia has been humbling, and has taught me a lot about grace. As someone who used to pride herself on being self-reliant and getting things done, I have now become someone who openly gets by due to the patience and support of a lot of people. It has also, in its own way, been eye-opening, as I’ve become more aware of the negative thoughts, feelings, fears, and mindsets that form the undercurrent of my depressive episodes. Chief among this is the fear that my worth is based entirely on “making it” and “making good,” and that failing to do so renders me unworthy of receiving love. Because of it, I have tended to push people away the moment I sense their displeasure, even going so far as to outright scream at my mother that I knew she would leave me in the end, just as Amah had left my dad. 

Just as Amah had left me.

It became very obvious, then, that I still had issues about my grandmother.

Let me be clear: I believe my grandmother loved my dad as best she could. Their relationship was also very difficult, and it is not my place to expound on that, nor is it my place to speculate or judge. What I can say is that I had clearly not forgiven my grandmother for those years when she had withdrawn from me out of fear of what I might have become. That unforgiveness fueled my insecurities, which then affected the way I related to other people and lived my life. My bitterness was causing me to self-destruct.

Thankfully, God is merciful. Even in my brokenness, he still allowed me the opportunity to minister to others, and, in late 2018, in the midst of a long season of pruning, I received what I believed was my own ministry calling. While I am not yet 100% certain what that path will look like, I can say that God has already clearly started moving, such that during this year’s prayer and fasting, I had several people actively praying for and encouraging me regarding a confirmation of my calling.

Just last Christmas, I had a long talk with my mother about how I still found it difficult to forgive my grandmother, even after so much time had passed and even after understanding where she was coming from. I explained to her that I still heard Amah’s words in my head, could still feel her disapproval every time I failed or proved unstable. I admitted that on some level, I still felt condemned as her embarrassment, and wanted some form of justification to prove that was not the case. I knew these were stupid requests: my grandmother was dead, and could not be expected to apologize from beyond the grave. I was the only one left with the baggage, and so it would ultimately be my choice to let go. Still, feeling unable to do so, I decided I’d leave that up to God, asking him to help me forgive.

I did not expect the form that help would take.

On the last day of prayer and fasting, as we were praying for personal breakthrough and spiritual direction, I sensed God telling me something rather surprising: “You are your grandmother’s reward.” I had not thought about my grandmother at all throughout prayer and fasting, being focused on praying for great faith and the breakthrough that was my season of pruning. In fact, I had pretty much forgotten about asking God for help to forgive her, and yet here God was with the strangest answer: “You are your grandmother’s reward.”

The Bible is full of examples of faith as a legacy, of generations reaping the rewards of one person’s faith. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob…the list goes on. These were not perfect people, not by any means–Abraham often acted out of fear, Isaac played favorites, and Jacob was an outright deceiver–but when the time came, they responded to God in faith, and God rewarded them with the blessing of their descendants. It didn’t register at first, but soon the clarity sunk in: for all of my grandmother’s flaws, she had been a woman of great faith, and great love for God, and God was calling me her reward, designating me the fruit of her faithfulness.

Instead of being offended that “my” calling was a result of the faith of a woman who had rejected me, I was awed by God’s wisdom and moved by his grace. In giving my grandmother her reward, he honored her faith despite her mistakes. In naming me the reward, he undid the distance our fractured relationship had created, reconciling us through the bond of a shared faith. My Amah’s fondest wish had been for at least one of her grandchildren to want to take up her fight for the lost. Now, I was that grandchild, the source of her joy, my faith seen as the fruit of hers. I could feel only gratitude and wonder at how God had managed to redeem the damage done, perfectly balancing justice, mercy, and grace.

I’m sure that my battle with bitterness isn’t 100% over. Forgiveness, I know, is a daily choice, and one I honestly should have made long ago. Still, I won’t lie: this makes that choice so much easier for me. I am in awe of God’s mercy, that instead of condemning me for being bitter, he would choose to comfort me with a term such as reward, while reminding me at the same time that my grandmother really did love me as best she could, and that my faith is as much the fruit of hers, as it is a product of God’s all-consuming grace.

More than anything else, this breakthrough reflects that God really is faithful, even when we make mistakes. My grandmother was fearful. I was resentful. Yet we both held fast to the same God, and in the end that God made all things right.

I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

2 Timothy 1:5 (NIV)

Written as a testimony for #ENFast2019. 

The God Who Answers With Fire

This is a testimony.

The last time I gave a testimony, I was on a high from answered prayers and excellent performance. The tail end of 2017 produced breakthrough after breakthrough, in miraculous circumstances, and I–along with the people around me–was confident that it would only get better from there.

I was hopeful, in 2018, that we would only see success after success.

…that was not what happened.

The Bible says that we’re not supposed to make a show of praying and fasting, but considering my church has a hashtag for every year–this year’s is #ENfast2019–I don’t think it’s wrong to reveal that this is exactly what I’m doing right now. I’m praying and fasting, and it feels too early to be having breakthroughs (those usually come during the last night of the fast, which this year is this coming Friday), but I don’t know what else to call this. When I last shared a testimony, it was God making clear that he can move mountains, that he can deliver victories when all expect defeat.

That was 2017.

In 2018, he taught me something else: that he can deliver victory *in* defeat.

At the beginning of 2018, for the first time ever, I asked God for a word to define my year. He answered immediately–which is rare for Him, He usually likes to make me wait–and clearly. The word was pruning, which is not a word that usually excites Christians, but it excited me because I felt that it meant he was going to remove all the other responsibilities and tasks and work from my life that wasn’t connected to the one big thing that I was meant to do (I was sure this was music-related.). I believed that I would exit 2018 with a clear idea of my purpose, my future, and what I was going to be doing on this earth.

…that was not what happened.

In 2018, every single month of the year, nothing I had planned managed to happen. I fell short on my work goals, struggled through music school, found myself functionally demoted at work (people had to keep being hired on top of me as my shortcomings became evident), and exited 2018 with nothing to show for my promise or my struggles. From the girl with all the potential, I was reduced to someone no longer competent and full of ideas, the way I used to be. I was not the “superstar,” the “rockstar,” the girl with the plans who made things happen. I was the kind of person who claimed a Joseph anointing, that God would manifest himself by making me excellent wherever I went. In hindsight, that was arrogance: I was arrogant, belligerent, disrespectful of authority, convinced that I was the best because I was “blessed.”

At the lowest point of 2018, I found myself grappling with a depression so deep it rendered me numb. I’ve mentioned having been diagnosed in 2017 as having dysthymia, which is a mild and cyclical form of depression, but this felt anything but mild. I was bitter. I had no energy to do anything. I was weak and constantly on the verge of crying or else flying into a rage. I felt like I wasn’t in control of myself, and that it took all my energy just to look “normal” so I wouldn’t hurt anyone (with varying degrees of success). I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 2018 crushed me, such that I would repeat to my mother over and over that I had lost the sense of who I was and now felt helpless.

As part of preparing for Prayer and Fasting, I took some time to reflect on 2018 and everything that had happened. It was then that I found the journal entry listing my word for the year: pruning.

Right then, it hit me.

I don’t know what else you could call what I’d experienced as anything but just that: pruning. God wasn’t going to remove tasks from me, because God is not a God of to do lists. Instead, I realized God is more concerned with who I would be in Him, and so he painfully, brutally tore away and burned and broke off everything that would hinder me from being who I needed to be in him: dependent, submitted, reliant, humbled. I have always struggled with depending on God, because I have always been so competent.

Well, there’s no question of that now.

As I was doing devotions today, it hit me that everything I thought was a setback last year was instead a manifestation of God’s promise. He promised to prune me. And he delivered. I know it sounds crazy, considering what a painful year I had, how humbling it was, how terrifying the future now seems. And yet, for the first time in maybe ever, it feels like I have nothing to be afraid of, because for the first time in a long time I know something for sure: God does what He says He will. He promised to prune me, and he did that. He made a promise and he kept it. God is a God who keeps His word.

The last time I can remember being filled with faith was after my Seoul trip with Esther. During that trip, I got a sense that I was called to go into ministry involving the arts, that said ministry would be connected to mental health, and that possibly said ministry would be reaching out to the youth using music in countries that were not my own. In the depths of my depression, I questioned whether God could even use me for ministry at all, whether or not I had made that declaration of a calling “too early” because I was such a vulnerable, broken, unstable mess that I couldn’t see God using me. Now I realize that it isn’t about my state of “suitability,” but about what He says he will do. He made me a musician. He made me a storyteller. He gave me this heart, no matter how weak and fragile its beat is. He knows about my illnesses, my hangups, my frailties. Knowing all that, He decides the calling. And, after the 2018 I have just had, I think I have it loud and clear that He will do what He says He will do, regardless of what the world says, and regardless of my expectations.

I asked God what His word for me is in 2019. Like the last time, he answered immediately. Like the last time, he answered clearly. The word for 2019 was PROMISE, the verse accompanying it one that I used to consider a cliche: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you a hope and a future.'” (Jeremiah 29:11) I used to dismiss that verse as banal encouragement, but today it sounds instead like a war cry, a declaration of authority, of God saying “I know the plans I have for you. You don’t know them, but I do.”

God is a God of His Word, and His Word is a promise. I may not know what that promise looks like, but He does. And I know for sure that He always does what He says He will. All I need is to follow where He leads, trusting that I do not need to know because he does.

The first ever spoken word verse I wrote went something like this: “I serve a God who answers with fire.”

In the darkest moments of 2018, terrified and broken and uncertain, I would find myself crying out to God: “Lord, I cannot move unless you move. I will not go anywhere without you.”

It wasn’t a question, but I think I have an answer. “From here on out,” God says, “You will never have to.”