Last July 29 to August 6, I was blessed enough to be in Hong Kong to attend a conference. Now, as my tradition, I decided to walk.
I did this first in Osaka, Japan. Admittedly, the first one was an accident, where I ended up lost around Osaka for 3 hours. Without my Phone. Without money. And WITHOUT CAMERA. That’s intelligence right there, ladies and gentlemen. That’s 180 minutes in Japan without pictures. But it was fine. I decided I enjoyed it and repeated it when I was in Porto, Portugal. This time, I brought my phone and purposefully got lost in the city. However, my phone died on me during the walk and I had to look for the train station for around an hour. It was cold (February-March), I only had 2 layers of clothing (yes. Intelligence), and my social anxiety was enough to out-silent an owl (they are pretty silent). Thank God their subway is large enough to include a station near my hotel and I was home safe and sound before night fall.
My third time was doing it in Metro Manila (see here) during the Lent. I enjoyed it so much I decided to write a blog on it. So this time, after the conference, I positively wanted to walk. My feet itched to go somewhere, anywhere, and so I asked a few friends where to go (they didn’t know I was walking though). The consensus was the Big Buddha.
I did not actually know how to get to the trail head. This guide had pictures but when I looked for an online guide at the time, I found one without pictures. So like the first guide, I got lost for an hour looking for the trail head.
Remember, I was excited to just go somewhere already. The thing is, when emotions are high, whatever emotion it is, logic and careful planning takes a step back. Or multiple steps back. I don’t know. Because of this, I went and started the walk from Tung Chung station in my jeans, shirt, and casual shoes (not the walking ones). Now, any person with experience walking through jungle trails, those are the opposite of what they would say you should wear. I had the foresight of bringing a liter of water and some energy drinks from the nearby convenience store (spoiler: 1 liter was used up 1/3 of the way, and I didn’t get to eat the energy drinks because: no water). Yeah, foresight.
So there I was, one hour after reaching Tung Chung, looking at the trail head, pumped up to start going up already.
In our life, we get to start a lot of things. We may not get to see the end of some , but we start a lot. Whether it be a new training regime to lose weight, a new course in college, starting high school, or just learning a musical instrument. We start things. That’s just the way of it.
Now, thing is, when we start something, there is bound to be some expectations. Things like “I’m gonna lose a kilo per week” or “I’m going to ace this course” or even “I’ll be the best at singing this song in no time” is gonna be there. It’s natural to have these. It’s because of the fact that we start something in order to accomplish something. That expectation of ourselves will always be there. It might be super high expectation, or something that we think we can accomplish, but it’s there.
One example that is very prevalent is our walk with God. We start our walk with God with a filled spirit. Because we just learned that our God actually loves us! and He died for us! and that’s really nice! and I’m never sinning again–
When I saw the trail head, I was excited. Did I say I was excited? Because I was excited. I am finally here! So I looked at the map at the side of the trail head, took a picture, and walked. More like, sprinted. I was so happy! So I took a picture.
And more pictures.
And more pictures.
Okay, by this time, the scenery was nice, but it was getting stale. Also, I was getting tired. Why am I getting tired? The map tells me that getting to the first tower would tell me I finished around a fourth of the way. Where is that tower?
By this time, I actually stopped thrice to catch my breath. The path was just going up and up and up and-
I finally saw the tower sometime later. It was still a couple of steps (okay, a lot of steps) up, but no matter, I will get there. So I mustered all my remaining strength and went up. Surely it would get better when I get there, right?
Throughout the journey to achieve a goal, there are things called checkpoints. These could take the form of simply knowing the chords to a song, achieving a certain weight (not yet the goal, but something in between), finishing a year in college or even in some other form that might not be recognizable. This checkpoint oftentimes signify an increase of difficulty in order to achieve that thing that we wanted. In grad school, I call this the MS.
This checkpoint is a good thing. It shows us a tangible result of our efforts, an event where we can see that what we are doing is bearing fruit. It is an assurance to ourselves that something is happening and that we are actually improving towards our goal.
However, the checkpoint can be a bad thing. This is where stopping is very tantalizing, because it might not be the best thing, but it surely is good enough, right?
For most Christians, the first checkpoint can be anything. It sometimes shows itself as the first time one becomes part of a ministry. Sometimes, it can be the first time one shared God to other people. Other times, the checkpoint can mark an increase in hardship. It could even show itself as the first time God has given one a leadership position.
The problem with checkpoints is that, it makes us want to stop.
During my walk, I gradually lost all my strength (It happens when you continually walk a steep path without stopping). When I reached my first checkpoint (the first tower), this was the view that I saw:
Seeing the path, I was discouraged. In fact, while writing this blog and looking at the picture, I could vividly remember the despair that I felt. That barely visible thing in the haze is the next checkpoint, the second tower.
It was like something broke in me. It was similar to realizing that I have to do my own taxes, cook my own food and prepare my own clothes. Similar, but much more. Because dear Lord what have I done? That is quite far away.
At this point, I already removed my shirt because I needed to cool off my body. The sun was bearing down with a vengeance. I do not know what it was avenging, but the sun must been so badly hurt it looked for somebody to feel its wrath. Sadly, I became the unwilling target of its glare and-
Well that analogy spiraled out of my control. That was also the state of my mind because a fourth of the way and I already drank all the water and I’m quite tired.
This was when I thought of stopping and going back.
NO. My pride supplied. Practicality backed my pride since it’s not everyday one can go to Hong Kong (no seriously. That was one of my arguments to myself as to why I should continue.). This pride gave me some more boost to continue walking forward.
So I continued. I still had my energy bars, and I thought that the trail must be easier than it looks right? Like many times that day, I was wrong.
It was actually the opposite. Still I kept walking, hoping it would get easier (at the back of my mind was the dread that it wouldn’t). Somewhere along, a person passed me (he was actually the fourth to do so). He stopped somewhere in front to rest and when I reached him I asked:
How much further?
When we feel we have done (suffered) enough, we actually think, for a second time, this should be fine right? I should be closer than before. And yes, that is actually right. We are actually closer to our goal. But not as close as we think we are.
In the example of playing an instrument, this should the part where we can already play the song straight. I remember when my dad taught me the song Leader of the Band by Dan Fogelberg. When I learned to play the song all the way through, I was happy. I was proud of myself. But then my father told me “you gotta learn the accent”.
Turns out what he was saying was that, each note is not just a note but a combination of the note itself, the volume, the time from the previous note to the next one and many others. I don’t know the technical word (my father was self taught), but when he explained it to me, he used the speech analogy. It’s not just about the words spoken but also the cadence, the volume, the tone, and others in order to deliver a good speech. In order to perfectly play a song, one has to learn these things.
I was flabbergasted. It turned out, I was still very far in mastering the song. So much so that I gave up. I told myself that what I learned was enough to impress others (which was true). It didn’t actually impress my father. It might have made him happy, but not impressed. (That reminds me, I should try again).
When we think that what we have achieved is enough to impress others, that we can stop because others already praise us, that’s when we start falling into a trap. The trap of stagnation.
One might say, that yeah it’s a trap because you stop improving. But the real reason is that, we are not just stopping. We are falling back and undone what has been done.
This is what happens when we claim what has been achieved as ours. When walking with God, this happens when we think that what He had done is ours. We forget that it was God who saved us in the first place, that He was the one who allowed us to get where we are. That it was His faithfulness that allowed Peter to walk on water. It was His faithfulness that allowed Abraham and Sarah to have a son even when they’re old. It was His faithfulness that won David his bout against Goliath. That it was Him on the cross in order to save us.
When I asked the traveler how much further, he answered: This is just the third of the way.
Giving more. And giving up.
What does it mean to give up?
Sometimes we can give up halfway, and bring what we learned with us. It means we can actually stop and decide okay this is enough. This means that there are times when giving up is an option.
But in our walk with God, what does it mean to give up?
It means going back.
It means undoing what God has done.
It means undoing our journey. Which was something I thought I vehemently hated with all my might. You see, when you can give up midway, and actually bring something with you when you give up, that is somewhat okay with me. I mean, it is bad since you gave up, but still okay since you are able to bring something of value with you after giving up.
But when you give up, and walk away with nothing, it would be the same as having done nothing at all.
In our walk with God, to give up is to throw away all that God did. It means to throw away the cross. Giving up is not an option. The silver lining is that God does not give up, and we are still His children even if we give up, because one does not stop being God’s child. But throwing off what He did? Declaring that it’s nothing to you?
Endings and Beginnings
I stopped on a wooden stair.
The sun was glaring at all creation, I was glaring at those inside the cable cars, because of course the trail would be along the path of the cable cars to make us envious of them and that-
That thought might have passed across my mind. And I might have been irrationally angry.
At this point, I was already so tired that I would shuffle for around ten meters or so, then stop for five minutes. Then try to look at my path, then stand and rinse and repeat. It went for a long time before I acknowledge the thoughts that was plaguing my mind.
Why was I doing this? What was even the point? Whose fault is this anyway? Why did I even try? I should’ve known I can’t do it. Can’t finish anything. I should give up. I should turn around.
You see, these questions do not necessarily pertain to my journey during this trek. I mean these questions do, but they are also questions I ask about my life.
Here I was made bare.
Then I thought: If I gave up now, I would go home with nothing. I would undo all these progress. I took stock of myself. My body already gave up. My mind is next. And my heart has already shriveled with hopelessness. So what can I do? What can anybody do?
Then I remembered I am God’s child.
You know, there is a pattern here. Not in this walk, but in this walk with God. Sometimes we can only remember Him in times of despair. I certainly realized that. I was then hit with a wave of something. A wind of remembrance. Of things already finished, not by my own hand but another’s -.
I cried. I was surprised by this, but I cried.
With frustration, weariness, and shame burning through my heart, I cried. Not with tears, no, because I am losing too much water to bother losing more of it in tears. But yes I cried. Because He’s always there. It’s not Him who turns his back.
I remember shouting at the heavens. What now, God? I am here all alone, what do you want me to learn?
Then I became afraid because He might answer! I remembered those movies I saw where God would answer with a thundering voice and I definitely do not want to experience thunders today please no.
He did answer. A bit later. In His own timing, is what I am saying.
I continued walking for sometime. Sometime later, God’s first answer came in the form of a Chinese lady. She was about to pass me but something made her stop and sit on a stair in front of me (might have been exhaustion, might have been God. No, definitely God). She might have seen me while crying or something (Please no I have felt enough shame already), but she asked something in Chinese, and I responded in English: I do not understand Chinese sorry.
Ah sorry sorry.
It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.
This is halfway.
Hmm. Thanks. I already drank all my water though. (I actually did not know why I said this. I was not expecting anyone to share their drink because why would you?)
I have some. You want? (Here I looked at her with not a small amount of incredulity)
She offered hers, and while I didn’t want her to lose all her drink before she reached the big buddha, I was thirsty enough to discard my pride and drink from her tumbler. I then Thanked her profusely. The capital letter was warranted.
Looking back at this, I realized that God’s first answer was compassion. That lady didn’t have to do it. She didn’t have to risk me drinking it all and leaving none for her.
Now the problem is, it wasn’t water at all. It was a sweet drink made from coconut water. While some might argue that, hey it has sugar and all those sources of energy and why are you complaining, I was definitely ranting in my mind because it increased my thirst. Still I thanked the lady and went my shuffling way.
A short while later, God’s second answer came in the form of a sound. Not the thunder kind, but the trickling kind. I could hear a stream of water!
You see, God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes things happen that would make you think, Hey my situation worsened. Thanks for nothing, I guess. Abraham certainly experienced famine in the promised land. Joseph certainly experienced the dampness of a cell while following God’s commands by not touching Potiphar’s wife. David experienced living in the midst of his supposed enemies. There are a lot of these things in the Bible.
But the twist would always be worth it.
It was this moment that I understood why the samaritan woman wanted that water Jesus was offering even if she knew He knew her past (and present) sins. When I saw that stream of water (it was not even a full blown river), I was at first dubious. I thought to myself, should I drink this? Then I waited for a bit, sat on the ledge for a bit, looked left, then looked right, then brought out my empty bottle and collected the water.
I hesitated for a bit.
I had to convince myself at first that it was from God. Because while it looked clean, it was suspicious.
Sometimes I lose faith. But God has enough of it for the both of us.
but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. – John 4:14 NIV
One might say that this water here is not water that we see normally. And I agree. But that saying is based on living water that flows crystal clear, and lives.
So I drank it.
It was definitely water that is living. It quenched all my thirst and then some. It made me happy. It rejuvenated my body. It healed me. It was enough to make me throw away my shame and pray to God even if I doubted Him just moments before!
It didn’t work immediately, no. But its true purpose is not making me relieve of my physical burdens. Its true purpose was to make me see what God wanted me to do. And it was so simple!
He wanted me to have faith in Him!
He wanted me to trust Him with my PhD. He wanted me to trust Him with my worries about having enough money. He wanted me to trust Him about my insecurities, my failures, and all the rest that made me me.
It was not easy, but it was simple.
It was here I ended my trust in myself, and began my trek for Him.
You see, trusting God is not the end. It comes with the end of trusting yourself, but is not the end in and of itself. Instead, what it was is a beginning.
When I climbed this particularly long, steep area, my left leg cramped.
Trusting God does not make things easier. But it makes things simpler. It makes things lighter. It gives faith that He will complete that which He started.
I fell forward, because backward was a no go. I sat on the ledge and contemplated, waiting for my leg to calm down. Now I do not know the science behind it but, sugar, together with water, when digested, gives energy. like duh.
When I could bear the hurt in my leg, I continued hiking up. Then I saw it:
You see, that very small speck inside the black sort-of-circle is the Big Buddha. Like a child hiding behind the skirt of its mother, peeking its head in curiosity, is the Big Buddha. When I saw it, I whooped in joy!
I must make this clear if it isn’t already. I’m not a buddhist. But this was God’s third answer.
Journey before destination
This quote was actually from a favorite book series of mine, the Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson. Basically what it means is there are several ways to achieve a goal. Which is quite apt since people will have different paths. Even if two people have the same goal, they will go through different paths, even if these paths are similar. Similar but different. The path that I took and the path of the cable cars looked similar enough if you look at it a certain way.
Fact is, everyone has different experiences that will be precious to them. These different experiences are not comparable to each other because each person will experience them at a different time and different situation in their life. Being bitter will not help that.
This path that I took in this journey made my arrival at the destination more satisfying, more meaningful. Not that it isn’t for others, but for me, the journey gave meaning to the destination. It made me appreciate the wonder that is the largest Buddha sculpture of the world.
It also made me appreciate that it’s not just about the destination, but the journey. Not just about God’s promise to Abraham, but how He did it. Not just about Joseph being an interpreter of dreams, but his faith in his God to deliver him from prison. Not just about David being prophesied as the next King of Israel, but how God led him to lead.
It’s not just about us, but ho God’s compassion, faith and hope manifest in our lives.
You see, I arrived at the big Buddha, and thoroughly enjoyed the area. The Chinese lady made another appearance, and this time, she gave me an honest-to-goodness energy drink that she brought from a convenience store! That ending made me feel like God was making a statement. He will always give more.
And true enough, I was able to go home in spite of the fatigue. I slept heavily as a rock, but heart as light as a feather.
Wynn Improso is a PhD student. He is also a long time fan of foods and, oddly enough, walking.